Reporter's notebook

At packed Jerusalem conference, religious far-right dreams big of resettling Gaza

At the return to Gush Katif extravaganza, a determined community makes plans to ‘right the injustice’ of the 2005 Disengagement – regardless of Israel’s troubled global standing

Jeremy Sharon

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Settlement activists at a conference in Jerusalem to promote the construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza go up on stage in dedicated groups that seek to establish six new settlements in the coastal enclave, January 28, 2024. (Courtesy the Nachala Settlement Movement)
Settlement activists at a conference in Jerusalem to promote the construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza go up on stage in dedicated groups that seek to establish six new settlements in the coastal enclave, January 28, 2024. (Courtesy the Nachala Settlement Movement)

Defying the dreary drizzle that has descended on Jerusalem in recent days and the generally somber mood of the country, thousands of settler activists from the religious Zionist community made their way Sunday night to a conference enthusiastically promoting the renewal of Jewish settlement in Gaza.

For many, the Settlements Bring Security conference was the start of correcting a historic wrong. The 2005 evacuation of the 21 Jewish settlements, and their 8,600 residents, from the coastal Gush Katif enclave under the Disengagement plan was a deep spiritual trauma for the religious-Zionist community, bent on completing the restoration of Jewish sovereignty over all of the Land of Israel.

Some 18 years later, the idea of a Jewish return to Gush Katif is out of cold storage but is still highly controversial, both in Israel and the international community. Yet at the conference, almost a third of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was in attendance.

The event was also a long-awaited reunion of like-minded individuals who overflowed the International Convention Center’s main hall. Youths with peyot (sidelocks) flying embraced their buddies, as young families with small children caught up with friends and acquaintances, amid the joyful music and the lusty dancing that interspersed the night’s speeches and declarations.

Photos of 11 cabinet ministers and over a dozen coalition MKs dancing on stage at the conference were widely criticized the next day as insensitive to the emotions of the war-torn nation. But, to those in the room, it was seen as a heartfelt reaction to the soulful tune played by religious superstar musician Aaron Razel in honor of the hostages held by Hamas, singing the biblical verse, “Let the ransomed of the Lord return, And come with joy to Zion.”

A sequence of video clips was played to great fanfare and rousing music after a speech delivered by ultra-nationalist National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. The head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party was received like a rock star as he greeted the crowd with, “Good evening Jerusalem, good evening to the people of Israel, good evening to the Land of Israel!”

The video reel featured soldiers who, going against direct orders, had filmed themselves in Gaza during the current IDF ground operation reveling in the destruction of Gazan cities. Several soldiers declared that they wanted to “conquer and settle” the territory. They were filmed planting seeds in fields, declaring that they are “destroying in order to build” settlements, and planting Israeli flags.

The reel included a video of IDF soldiers dancing in Gaza singing, “Everyone knows our line, there are no uninvolved [Palestinians in Gaza].” That clip in particular got a rousing cheer from the assembled activists on Sunday night.

Notably, this was the same video that was played in front of the judges of the International Court of Justice in The Hague earlier this month by the South African legal representatives to demonstrate what they alleged was Israel’s genocidal intent against Gazans.

Cabinet ministers and MKs dance during the ‘Settlements Bring Security’ conference to promote rebuilding Gush Katif settlements in Gaza at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The conference came just two days after the ICJ decision maintaining that Israel might plausibly be violating elements of the Genocide Convention, but concern for Israel’s international legal entanglement was not evidenced by the crowd, the organizers, or the high-level cabinet ministers present, who had themselves been quoted by South Africa.

Instead, heard at the conference were comments from Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of the Likud party, part of the religious-Zionist community, who essentially called for the forcible transfer of Palestinians from Gaza.

“We have an obligation to act, for our sakes and even for the sake of those supposedly uninvolved civilians, to [bring about] voluntary emigration — even if this war, which was imposed on us, turns this voluntary migration into a situation of ‘Coerce him until he says, ‘I want to do so,’” said Karhi. The minister was citing a principle in Jewish law whereby someone can be coerced into performing certain religious obligations by physical or other forms of pressure, including beating them. His comments were greeted with whoops and applause from the audience.

These comments, as well as the very theme of the conference, go against mainstream Israeli public opinion.

Palestinians flee Khan Younis during an Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 27, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

The map of a future Gaza as envisioned by the organizers and posted at the event displayed a lack of acknowledgment of the 2.2 million Palestinians living in the Strip. Depicted in bright and friendly primary colors, the map indicated the six spots where new settlements would be established — but failed almost entirely to mark the existence of massive Palestinian population centers.

When asked if such a settlement plan would not further deepen friction and conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Samaria District Council Chairman Yossi Dagan, one of the principal organizers of the conference, told this reporter that “no one wants to mix the populations together.”

At Sunday’s conference, parts of the religious-Zionist community and its political leaders, among them top decision-makers, declared openly and proudly that they sees the current war as an opportunity to return to live in Gaza and “right the injustice” of the 2005 Disengagement. The conference, in their view, was the optimistic start of a process.

At the beginning of his set on Sunday night, musician Razel addressed the crowd, saying that he was proud to be a part of the Jewish people and happy to be at the uplifting event. A choice biblical verse cited by Razel before he dedicated a song to the IDF soldiers fighting in Gaza perhaps inadvertently spoke to the global clamor surrounding Israel’s current military campaign, and the tempest that would arise should Israel reestablish settlements in Gaza: “[The Jewish people have] a spirit which does not bow its head, which never surrenders. ‘A nation that dwells alone, Not reckoning themselves one of the nations,'” (as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translates the verse).

As seen at the Settlements Bring Security conference on Sunday, this part of the religious-Zionist community seemingly believes that Israel is a nation that need not and should not worry about what others might think, want or do.

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