A boisterous weekend convention held at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem in which Israeli officials—including several of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ministers—called for Israeli resettlement in Gaza is exposing deep rifts between Washington and Jerusalem.
At the conference, a number of top Israeli officials advocated for Israel’s reoccupation of Gaza after Israel’s war in Gaza comes to a close. Some advocated for the “voluntary” removal of Palestinians from the enclave.
Footage of the gathering posted to social media show many dancing, jumping, and fist-pumping in apparent celebration. That, even in the face of Israel killing tens of thousands of Palestinians in its bombardment of Gaza in recent months, the dire humanitarian situation and human suffering in the enclave, and over 100 hostages still held captive by Hamas.
ריקודי השמחה האלה והחזון להקמת התנחלויות בלב עזה לא שונים במהותם משריפת מחסני המזון בירושלים הנצורה בימי המרד הגדול.
חבורה קיצונית שהחזון שלה מבשר את בידודה של מדינת ישראל.
מול ההזיה הזו אי אפשר להסתפק בגמגומים, בתנועת ביטול או בעצימת עינים, ואי אפשר להתעלם ממנה בחסות ה״נשיאה… pic.twitter.com/wVdMHdjBSR
— גלעד קריב (@KarivGilad) January 28, 2024
“God willing, we will settle and we will be victorious,” Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly said at the convention, according to The Times of Israel.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said it was “time to return home to Gush Katif,” a former Israeli settlement in Gaza that Israel dismantled in 2005. “If we don't want another Oct. 7, we need to return home and control the land.”
The White House lambasted the forum, noting that it was “troubled” by the gathering.
“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 National Security Council said in a statement. “We have also been clear, consistent, and unequivocal against the forced relocation of Palestinians outside of Gaza.”
The Palestinian Authority, too, said the calls amounted to forced removal of Palestinians, according to Reuters.
Families of hostages still held captive were appalled at the conference.
Merav Leshem-Gonen, the mother of Romi Gonen, a hostage, called the gathering “shocking.”
“Deporting another ethnic group – isn’t that what was done to us in Europe? Are we not here to discuss antisemitism, are we not here to be better?” Leshem-Gonen said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
It’s not the first time questions have been raised about the Israeli post-war Gaza after Israel stops its war campaign. Smotrich previously said that he objected to a provisional plan for Gaza after the war, which was announced by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, since it did not contain plans for the removal of Palestinians and the resettlement of Israelis.
In all, 11 ministers and 15 coalition lawmakers attended the conference, which was organized by the Nachala settlement group for the religious-Zionism community, which has been calling for Israeli resettlement in Gaza. The sheer number of members of Netanyahu’s cabinet who attended the event—nearly one-third of his cabinet—has raised questions about whether Netanyahu is serious about his statements that Israel does not intend to occupy Gaza at the end of the war.
Israel has said that although it will “reserve its operational freedom of action in the Gaza Strip, it does not want to resettle the enclave. The defense minister’s plan for post-war Gaza, though, leaves a lot to the imagination. A copy of the plan previously obtained by The Daily Beast reveals several bullet points about Gaza and how reconstruction and governance ought to look after the war is over, but it is scant on details.
The French and British have also called out the conference for its alarming message.
“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 French Foreign Ministry said, referring to a ruling from the ICJ last week.
“The UK’s position is clear: Gaza is occupied Palestinian territory and will be part of the future Palestinian state,” the U.K. Foreign Office said. “Settlements are illegal. No Palestinian should be threatened with forcible displacement or relocation.”
The controversial conference exposes the layers of deep divide that still remain in Israel over what a post-war Gaza ought to look like.
While Netanyahu has issued a statement reassuring his policy is not aligned with the conference’s, its organizers have made it clear that they are interested in making plans for settlements. “Only a transfer [of Palestinians from Gaza] will bring peace,” one banner at the confab read.