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Friday, February 09, 2024

Israeli Settlers Left Gaza in 2005. They Now See a Chance to Return. - The New York Times

Israeli Settlers Left Gaza in 2005. They Now See a Chance to Return.

"The United States and many other nations are pushing Israel to hand Gaza back to Palestinian leadership. But within Israel, a powerful lobby is trying to rally support for Jewish settlements there.

A man in a shirt with the Israeli flag, also holding an Israeli flag, in a crowd in a convention hall.
Right-wing activists at a convention calling for building new Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, in Jerusalem, in January.Amir Levy/Getty Images

By Natan Odenheimer

Natan Odenheimer spoke to dozens of settler activists, as well as their opponents and analysts.

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A group of Israelis hoping to live in Gaza at the war’s end has already published maps imagining Jewish-majority towns dotting the territory. Far-right Israeli lawmakers have drafted plans to make such settlements legal. And Israel’s national security minister has called for Arab residents to leave Gaza so that Jews can populate the coastal strip.

After four months of war and a death toll that Gazan officials say exceeds 27,000 killed, international pressure is mounting on Israel to withdraw from Gaza. But a small group of Israelis is pushing for the opposite: They want Israel to retain control of the territory, from which Hamas launched the deadliest attack in Israeli history, and re-establish the Jewish settlements that were dismantled in Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

“The minute the war is over, we’ll build our homes there,” said Yair Cohen, 23, a reserve soldier, who said his family was evicted from Gaza in 2005. “The question isn’t whether we will return when the fighting is over, but if there will be a Gaza.”

To Palestinians, the settlers’ plans would most likely end in mass displacement and an end to their dream of a Palestinian state — a dream that much of the world would like to see realized. “Israel wants the Palestinian people to choose between destruction and displacement,” the Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, told the body last month.

But unlikely as resettlement seems to outsiders, the idea is being promoted at a time when Israel has yet to decide how postwar Gaza should be governed.

Though the United States and other powers are pushing for Gaza to form part of a Palestinian state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has other priorities, including staying in power and placating his far-right coalition partners. In the absence of a government plan for after the war, talk of settlement is filling the vacuum and alarming Israel’s allies.

The movement to settle Gaza is driven by nationalist fervor, religious zeal and security concerns after Oct. 7, when Hamas-led fighters stormed the Israeli border from Gaza, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 others hostage, according to Israeli officials.

The subsequent war — and the absence of a clear and alternative plan for Gaza’s future — provides what the settlers see as an opportunity. For nearly two decades, settlers and their supporters have viewed the 2005 withdrawal as a catastrophic setback.

Israel’s prime minister and defense minister have ruled out resettlement  and the idea lacks support from most of the Israeli public. A Hebrew University poll in December found that 56 percent of Israelis oppose resettling Gaza. But a vocal minority is trying to build momentum behind their project, and they are supported by a third of the lawmakers in Israel’s far-right governing coalition.

The settlers’ dream of Israelis returning to Gaza would mean replacing the Palestinians currently living there, and while the settler movement is divided on how to do that, some extremist settlers advocate deportation.

At a recent settler conference in Jerusalem, which was attended by 3,500 people, including some far-right ministers, one group held up signs reading: “Only transfer will bring peace.”

As he addressed the meeting, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right national security minister, saw the posters and told the group: “You are right.” Then, of the Palestinians living in Gaza, he added: “They should go away from here.”

Some attendees shouted: “Only eviction!”

The settler movement has a long history and powerful supporters, including Mr. Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister. Both men wield outsize influence because their small parties are critical to keeping Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition in power.

The Israeli government began building settlements after the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt.

Most countries consider the settlements illegal, and regard them as an obstacle to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. Though Israel withdrew from Gaza, more than 200 settlements housing roughly half a million Israelis remain in the occupied West Bank.

Beyond far-right politicians, the movement also includes Israelis who lived in Gaza settlements before 2005, as well as religious hard-liners from West Bank settlements. A keynote speaker at rallies, Uzi Sharbav, was convicted of taking part in the murder of three Palestinians in the 1980s. Although sentenced to decades in prison, he was pardoned in 1990.

Some settlers view living in Gaza through a religious prism, seeking to inhabit the land of their ancestors in fulfillment of what they believe was a promise made by God in biblical times. Others say settlements are essential for Israel’s security, arguing that a civilian presence among Palestinians makes it more difficult for militants to organize attacks.

Avishai Bar-Yehuda, 67, was forced to leave the strip with his family nearly 20 years ago. Now dying from cancer, his final wish is to be laid to rest in the sands of Gaza.

“We pray to return,” he said at the settlers’ rally.

The push to resettle Gaza is happening both in political channels, in which far-right politicians are trying to give it legal backing, and at the grass roots.

In one provocation last month, settlement supporters briefly sent their children to break through military lines to play inside the buffer zone near the Gaza border.

In November, 11 members of Israel’s Parliament, mostly from Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, proposed repealing a law that prohibits Israeli citizens from entering Gaza.

Likud has not advanced those proposals, and Mr. Netanyahu has called resettlement “an unrealistic goal.” The United States recently imposed financial sanctions on several settlers in the West Bank amid a rise in settler-led attacks on Palestinians there, highlighting foreign opposition to the settlers’ plans.

But the settler movement has a track record of ignoring both foreign criticism and official policy, often building unauthorized settlements that later gain government approval.

Already, settler leaders are drawing up plans to infiltrate Gaza, hoping to build unauthorized villages that could eventually be recognized.

In early February, over 100 activists entered a closed military zone near the border, trying to breach Gaza. The military turned them away.

One of the activists, Amos Azaria, explained how supporters would start with small encampments.

“We’ll keep trying to get inside,” he said in an interview shortly after the failed incursion. “Should we have been successful today, we would probably be removed quickly. But we will take more substantial steps. We’ll arrive with tents and try to settle. Many families are ready to do whatever it takes.”

Some believe that Israeli soldiers already in Gaza could help settlers. And scores of soldiers have posted videos from Gaza in which they express support for resettlement.

“It’s our country, all of it — Gaza too,” Capt. Avihai Friedman, a military rabbi, was recorded recently telling a group of soldiers in Gaza. “The whole promised land.”

Settler leaders have tried to shake off the notion that they are driven by religious conviction alone. They argue that such communities make Israel safer. If settlers had been allowed to remain in Gaza, they say, it would have been harder for Hamas and other militants to organize the Oct. 7 attack.

“Only settlements justify long-term military presence, which in turn ensures security,” said Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division and now chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a right-wing institute.

Many Israelis disagree. “The settlements there were a security risk,” said Omer Zanany, security expert at a foreign policy research group, the Mitvim Institute, and Berl Katznelson Foundation. “Israeli military forces had to escort children to kindergartens and schools.”

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Britain, compared resettlement with the mass displacement of Palestinians that surrounded  Israel’s founding in 1948. “The Biden administration could end all this tomorrow if it stopped shielding, arming and funding not only Israel but its illegal expansion,” he said.

Opposition also extends to some settler leaders. Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat,  said those supporting resettlement had “no grip on reality,” adding, “There is no justification for deporting Palestinians.”

Although Mr. Netanyahu’s government does not officially back resettlement, critics fear the idea will gain momentum because Israel’s leaders have not proposed a real alternative vision.

“What scares me is that the settler movement is playing in an empty field,” Mr. Zanany said. “No one else is pushing a vision for after the war.”

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting."

Israeli Settlers Left Gaza in 2005. They Now See a Chance to Return. - The New York Times

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