ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Far-right minister Smotrich: ‘Settlements in Gaza not among goals of war’

Religious Zionism leader’s comments follow backlash against conference that called for establishing Jewish settlements in Strip; criticizes Ben Gvir’s threats to leave government

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 29, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, January 29, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said Thursday that reestablishing Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip is not one of the goals of Israel’s ongoing war against the terror group Hamas, contradicting an explicit objective of his political camp.

“The goal of the war isn’t to strengthen settlements, but rather to bring home the hostages and destroy Hamas,” Smotrich said during an interview on Army Radio.

“We thought it wasn’t a good idea to discuss ‘the day after’ because it’s a controversial subject, but we were pushed to do so. It can’t be that one side will work on their wishes while not letting us state our position, ” he added, referring to a controversial event held Sunday in Jerusalem, attended by 11 ministers and 15 coalition members including Smotrich, that called for building Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Footage from the conference drew backlash on social media, with critics noting that government and coalition ministers were gleefully dancing while a war is raging, tens of thousands of Israelis are displaced, soldiers are being killed on a near-daily basis, and 136 hostages are still being held by terrorists in Gaza.

It also sparked protests from the international community, including the United States.

At the event, Smotrich signed what was dubbed the “Covenant of Victory and Renewal of Settlement,” which pledged that the signatories would “grow Jewish settlements full of life” in the Gaza Strip.

However, unlike other speakers, Smotrich was not completely explicit in his speech regarding the construction of settlements in Gaza, instead only hinting strongly that he supports the idea.

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

He said that Israel could either “once again run away from terrorism” or “settle the land, control it, fight terrorism and bring security to the entire State of Israel.”

“Without settlement, there is no security. And without security on Israel’s borders, there is no security in any part of Israel.”

Smotrich concluded: “God willing, together we will be victorious; God willing, together we will settle and be victorious.”

Also at the conference, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, argued that the evacuation of the settlements in the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza had resulted in terrorism and rocket fire emanating from the territory against Israeli citizens, culminating in the October 7 massacre in which thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, murdering some 1,200 and taking 253 hostages to the Strip.

“Part of correcting the mistake, of recognizing the sin of the conception that brought upon us October 7 and brought upon us the expulsion [of settlers from Gaza in 2005], is to return home… [We] are returning home, to Gush Katif and northern Samaria,” said Ben Gvir, referencing four settlements in the northern West Bank that were also evacuated in 2005 as part of the disengagement.

Israel dismantled its 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and compelled their 8,000 residents to leave when it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pulling back to the pre-1967 lines.

Since the beginning of the war, Ben Gvir, who is not a member of the war cabinet, has been taking a hard line against the government’s wartime policies. The minister has often threatened to pull his party out of the governing coalition if a hostage agreement is reached with Hamas that he feels would endanger Israeli security.

Smotrich also appeared to distance himself from Ben Gvir’s approach on Wednesday during a Zoom conversation with Religious Zionism candidates for local elections, saying that he does not “like ultimatums or threats. There’s a nice saying that goes: ‘If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.’ Without threats and without acting like little children. We need to work together. More actions, less talking.

“The prime minister knows what the red lines are,” he added, referring to a possible hostage deal. “We won’t be part of a surrender, a ceasefire, or big risks to the State of Israel.”

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza, though some are believed to be dead.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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