The White House on Monday slammed a conference on Sunday night in Jerusalem aimed at encouraging the reestablishment of Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip, which was attended by nearly one-third of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet.
A statement issued by a National Security Council spokesperson said the US is “troubled” by the gathering, particularly due to the host of controversial statements by participants calling for the mass displacement of Gaza’s Palestinian population.
“We have also been clear, consistent, and unequivocal against the forced relocation of Palestinians outside of Gaza,” the White House statement said.
“This rhetoric is incendiary and irresponsible, and we take the prime minister at his word when he says that Israel does not intend to reoccupy Gaza,” the statement added, implicitly urging Netanyahu to crack down on such calls by his coalition partners.
Netanyahu said Saturday that the agenda advanced at the conference does not represent his government’s policy, but the decision by 11 ministers and 15 coalition lawmakers to attend the gathering has raised eyebrows both in Israel and around the world.
While the IDF insists the directive at the start of the war for Palestinians in northern Gaza to evacuate from their homes was issued in order to ensure they would not be caught in the crossfire, calls by ministers for Palestinians to be encouraged to emigrate from Gaza and for settlements to be reestablished there may well paint the evacuations in a different light.
France also condemned the Sunday conference, with its foreign ministry saying in a statement that it expected the Israeli government to “clearly denounce the positions” championed at the gathering.
“In this respect, France recalls that the International Court of Justice recently set out Israel’s obligation to take all measures within its power to prevent and punish this kind of rhetoric,” the foreign ministry statement added, referring to the ICJ initial ruling regarding South Africa’s allegation that Israel is perpetrating genocide in Gaza.
“It is not up to the Israeli government to decide where Palestinians should live on their land. The future of the Gaza Strip and of its inhabitants falls within the framework of a unified Palestinian state living in peace and security alongside Israel,” France added.
The UK Foreign Office said Tuesday that it was “alarmed” by the conference.
“The UK’s position is clear: Gaza is occupied Palestinian territory and will be part of the future Palestinian state,” its statement said. “Settlements are illegal. No Palestinian should be threatened with forcible displacement or relocation.”
Thousands of attendees from the religious Zionist community attended Sunday’s boisterous conference.
Several of the lawmakers who addressed the event, including far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, spoke about “encouraging voluntary emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza, as well as resettling the Strip, which Israel withdrew from in 2005. Participants broke into singing and dancing, with Ben Gvir among those seen joining the celebrations. Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, went further, suggesting that the emigration need not be voluntary during wartime.
Netanyahu did not condemn the presence of senior government officials at Sunday evening’s event, but ministers from the National Unity party did, blasting the gathering as divisive and harmful to the country’s war effort.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has reportedly promised the US that he will not allow any resettlement on his watch.
According to a report in Axios Monday citing four US and Israeli officials, Gallant told US officials last week he wouldn’t allow settlements to be built in Gaza.
The report said Washington has rising concerns that a one-kilometer buffer zone Israel plans to establish inside Gaza could be used to rebuild settlements. These concerns were expressed during a meeting between Gallant and US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew and US envoy for humanitarian affairs David Satterfield, Axios reported.
Gallant assured them that the buffer zone would be temporary and would be for security purposes only, according to the report.
The Monday condemnation from the Biden administration was the latest break with Israel over the latter’s prosecution of the war in Gaza.
While the US has supported Israel from the outset, the differences of approach between the two countries have grown, as the fighting has progressed, over planning for after the war. Washington is pushing for a reformed Palestinian Authority returning to govern Gaza as part of a broader initiative that would see Saudi Arabia normalize ties with Israel, while Jerusalem would agree to take steps to establish a pathway toward an eventual Palestinian state.
Netanyahu reportedly rejected the framework earlier this month. He has also dismissed allowing the PA to return to governing Gaza, while refusing to articulate a viable alternative.
Also on Monday, a US official told The Times of Israel that Israeli officials have told their American counterparts in recent days that the buffer zone the IDF is establishing on the Gaza side of the border with Israel is only meant to be temporary and will be removed once Hamas is completely removed from power.
Over the past several weeks, the IDF has been razing Palestinian homes along the border to establish the buffer zone, sparking alarm in Washington, which has insisted that there be no reduction in Gaza’s territory after the war.
The US official said that the Biden administration is not on board with even a temporary buffer zone and has voiced that stance with Jerusalem.
Washington believes that once established, Israel will not agree to withdraw from the buffer zone, the US official added.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.