Right-wing Israeli ministers join thousands at event calling for the country’s resettlement of Gaza

January 29, 2024
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JERUSALEM — Warnings from the White House — and the United Nations’ top court — appear to have done little to stop some of Israel’s right-wing ministers from touting an alarming vision that the country’s own prime minister has dismissed: rebuilding Israeli settlements in Gaza after the war.

Several ministers within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s right-wing government were among thousands of people to flock to a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday night calling for Israelis’ “resettlement” of Gaza, with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich delivering keynote speeches at the event.

The conference, dubbed “Settlement Brings Security,” was led in part by the right-wing Nachala organization, a group advocating for the expansion of Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal by international and humanitarian bodies. The event called for Israel to rebuild settlements in both Gaza and northern parts of the occupied West Bank.

Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza as it unilaterally withdrew from the territory in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. The enclave was left in the control of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas assuming control in 2007 after winning elections held in 2006 and a subsequent brutal power struggle with its main rival, Fatah.

While Netanyahu has said Israel has “no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” questions have remained over what the future of the enclave will look like once Israel’s war against Hamas ends.

An attendee takes a picture near a map suggesting a vision for Israeli settlements in Gaza at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.
An attendee takes a picture near a map suggesting a vision for Israeli settlements in Gaza at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.Kobi Wolf for NBC News

In the entrance hall of the conference Sunday, a massive map outlined what organizers said was their vision for settlements in Gaza — from north to the south of the enclave.

Daniella Weiss, a well-known leader of the Israeli settler movement and the director of Nachala, told NBC News the map envisions a future in which: “All of (the) Gaza Strip is a part of the state of Israel, of the land of Israel.”

“After Oct. 7th, history changed,” she said, referring to the Hamas attacks that day on Israel, which saw around 1,200 people killed and some 260 people taken hostage into Gaza. “It’s the end of the presence of Arabs in Gaza. It’s the end.”

“Instead of them, there will be many, many Jews that will return to the settlements, that will build new settlements,” she said.

Taking the stage at the conference, Ben-Gvir called on Netanyahu to be “courageous,” saying now was the time for the development of Israeli settlements in Gaza — and to “encourage” Palestinians to leave the enclave.

Many families could be seen in the crowd at the conference on Sunday.
Many families could be seen in the crowd at the conference on Sunday. Kobi Wolf for NBC News

Smotrich said he had “mixed emotions” about the event, with Israel being focused on the war against Hamas, but he said the country is at a crossroads and that “without settlement, there’s no security.”

Their comments sparked cheers from a roaring audience, with several ministers at one point getting up from their seats in the front row to join fellow attendees as they broke into song and dance.

In addition to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu and Tourism Minister Haim Katz, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, were also in attendance at the event, along with a number of other politicians.

Ariel Kallner, left, Shlomo Karhi, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Yossi Dagan and Amihai Eliyahu were among the politicians seen dancing at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.
Ariel Kallner, left, Shlomo Karhi, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Yossi Dagan and Amihai Eliyahu were among the politicians seen dancing at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.Kobi Wolf for NBC News

Their participation in the conference comes after the International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent acts of genocide in its offensive in Gaza, in which more than 26,000 people have been killed and more than 64,000 injured, with thousands more missing and presumed dead, according to Palestinian officials.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates condemned the conference in a post on X, saying it posed a “blatant challenge” to the ICJ’s ruling and encouraged the displacement of Palestinians by force.

The United Nations’ top court stopped short of ordering a cease-fire in the war, which South Africa, the plaintiff in the case, had requested.

Inflammatory rhetoric from prominent figures within Israel’s government played a key part in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, a charge Israel denied.

But on Sunday, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir appeared undeterred by both the events at The Hague and by a recent warning from the Biden administration to put an immediate “stop” to rhetoric advocating for the “resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.”

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leaves the stage at the conference on Sunday.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leaves the stage at the conference on Sunday.Kobi Wolf for NBC News

“This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on Jan. 2, responding to comments made by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.

“We have been told repeatedly and consistently by the Government of Israel, including by the Prime Minister, that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government,” he said, adding that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir should “stop immediately.”

The U.S., Miller said, has been “clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land,” but with Hamas “no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel.”

A map outlining organizers' views of what a resettlement of Gaza might look like is seen at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.
A map outlining organizers’ views of what a resettlement of Gaza might look like is seen at the conference in Jerusalem on Sunday.Kobi Wolf for NBC News / Kobi Wolf

Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on Israeli ministers’ attendance at the event on Sunday.

But since the start of the war, the Israeli prime minister has faced a constant balancing act of trying to maintain support from the Biden administration, while also trying to steer the most far-right government in Israeli history after forming a coalition dependent on extremist pro-settler politicians.

While thousands of people flocked to Sunday’s event, recent polling carried out in early December by the Hebrew University found more than half of Israelis were opposed to the idea of annexing the Gaza Strip and reinstating settlements that were dismantled during Israel’s 2005 withdrawal, according to The Times of Israel.

A man holds a billboard that says “only transfer to Palestinians will bring a peace" in Jerusalem on Sunday.
A man holds a billboard that says “only transfer to Palestinians will bring a peace” in Jerusalem on Sunday.Kobi Wolf for NBC News

In a survey of more than 1,800 people, 56% of Israelis said they were against the policy, while 33% were in favor and 11% were uncertain, the newspaper reported.

Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a post on X that Israeli ministers’ participation in Sunday’s event represented a “new low” for Netanyahu’s government.

He also expressed fears the event could cause damage to possible negotiations toward a deal to see hostages held in Gaza released, as well as to Israel’s international standing as the country continues to face scrutiny over its deadly offensive in Gaza.





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