Smotrich touts revival of Gaza settlements after war, wants Gazans encouraged to leave

Finance minister advocates for ‘voluntary emigration’ of enclave’s residents, opposes fuel going into Strip; stands by 2015 comment calling PA a ‘burden’ and Hamas an ‘asset’

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference in Jerusalem, December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich holds a press conference in Jerusalem, December 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Israel should discuss the revival of civilian settlements within the Gaza Strip as part of its planning for the enclave once Hamas rule is toppled, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Saturday night, while denying that any of Gaza’s approximately 2 million residents were innocent and calling for Israel to “encourage voluntary emigration” from the territory.

Speaking to Channel 12 news, the leader of the hard-right Religious Zionism party also doubled down on his refusal to transfer tax payments to the Palestinian Authority over concerns that the  money will find its way to Gaza, sloughing off reported pressure from the United States on the matter and pushing back against insinuations that he and others had propped up Hamas as a convenient foil.

“We will be in security control, and we will need there to be civil [control],” Smotrich said. “I’m for completely changing the reality in Gaza, having a conversation about settlements in the Gaza Strip… We’ll need to rule there for a long time… If we want to be there militarily, we need to be there in a civilian fashion.”

Under pressure from Smotrich, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday canceled a scheduled war cabinet debate on shaping post-war Gaza, and said he would hold the discussion instead in the larger security cabinet. Smotrich is not a member of the tight-knit war cabinet, but he and fellow far-right leader Itamar Ben Gvir, minister of national security, do sit in the security cabinet.

The minister, who was arrested in 2005 while protesting Israel’s evacuation of its Gaza Strip settlements, also said Jerusalem could not allow Gaza to remain as a “hothouse of 2 million people who want destroy the State of Israel.”

“We want to encourage willful emigration, and we need to find countries willing to take them in,” he said.

In an Army Radio interview on Sunday morning, Smotrich returned to that point: “We need to encourage immigration from there. If there were 100,000-200,000 Arabs in the Strip and not two million, the whole conversation about the day after [the war] would be completely different,” he said. “They want to leave. They have been living in a ghetto for 75 years and are in need.”

He also told Army Radio: “I don’t think there’s anyone in Israel who doesn’t want to see Jewish settlements everywhere.”

Israel’s mainstream leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea of reestablishing settlements in Gaza, though the military campaign in the Strip to fell Hamas following the October 7 massacres — when terrorists rampaged through Israeli communities, killing 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostages of all ages — has raised hopes among some stalwarts of the settlement movement.

An aid truck on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, waits to cross into the southern Gaza Strip on December 6, 2023. (AFP)

Likewise, Jerusalem has denied claims that it is seeking to displace Gazans, an idea whose very mention elicits angry denunciations from Israel’s Arab allies.

During the interview, Smotrich noted his lack of power within the government, saying he opposes fuel being allowed into the Strip, but backing other humanitarian aid.

And in apparent acknowledgment of his tenuous political fortune (polls have shown his party struggling to reenter the Knesset if elections were held now), he seemed to offer an olive branch to erstwhile right-wing allies Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, expressing remorse over his attacks on the pair for joining the previous government, which was cobbled together of parties from across the political spectrum.

“There were things I said that I shouldn’t have said. I’m a different person after October 7,” he said.

But Smotrich showed no softening of his position on the contention that PA money bound for Gaza’s civilian officials would end up going to terrorists.

“Not even a shekel will be transferred to Gaza,” he said. “Gazans are not innocent. I was against fuel [entering] and I still am. Fuel is power for terrorism and the tunnels. It is happening and it is bad — but I alone am not in charge of this government.”

Smotrich said he still agreed with and repeated a quote from a 2015 interview in which he said, “In the game of delegitimization… the Palestinian Authority is a burden and Hamas is an asset.” He claimed that the quote had been intentionally misinterpreted by critics as him saying the terror group was positive for Israel.

The snippet of the interview — conducted on October 7, 2015 — has repeatedly circulated on social media since the outbreak of the war.

“I stand by every word,” he said, explaining that Israel has international backing to act against Hamas, now even more so due to its brutal atrocities of October 7, while the Biden administration still urges that money be transferred to the PA.

Washington insists that after the war, the PA — which Israel has accused of supporting terrorism through education, payment of stipends to terrorists, and a failure to condemn Hamas’s atrocities — should eventually fill the leadership vacuum to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under a single political entity and pave a path toward an eventual two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, many in the defense establishment view the PA as a crucial partner in security coordination and ensuring relative calm in the West Bank.

The US concedes that the PA will need to be “rejuvenated” before it can take responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

In a “frustrating” call last weekend, US President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that his government’s decision to withhold Palestinian tax funds following October 7 must be resolved, Axios reported Thursday, citing US and Israeli officials and a “source with knowledge of the issue.”

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