The Right-Wing Israeli Campaign to Resettle Gaza

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Written By Pinang Driod

In 2005, Israel forcibly removed more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and ceded the territory to Palestinian control. But far from ushering in an era of peace, the Israeli exodus kicked off a new stage of the region’s conflict. Hamas took over the strip and turned it into a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israeli population centers, while Gaza’s evicted settlers began advocating for Israel to retake and resettle the territory. Today, for the first time in nearly two decades, this aspiration is no longer a fantasy.

That’s not to say the Israeli public would welcome such a move. This week, a Hebrew University poll found that Israelis oppose efforts to resettle Gaza after the current war, by a commanding margin of 56 to 33 percent. This consensus accords with both U.S. policy and the official stance of the Israeli government. Turning back the clock and rebuilding Gaza’s Israeli communities, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, is “not a realistic goal.” Most Israelis know that constructing and protecting small Jewish enclaves in such a hostile environment would be a moral and military nightmare. Given this information, a reasonable observer might conclude that the possibility is off the table.

It’s not. That’s because the Netanyahu government is uniquely beholden to a radical minority of Israelis who are committed to resettling the Gaza Strip, even if this means displacing or expelling Palestinians. When that minority speaks, Netanyahu listens. His coalition received only 48.4 percent of the vote in Israel’s previous election, and its hold on power hinges on an alliance of hard-right parties whose constituents form the backbone of the back-to-Gaza movement. That movement started soon after Israel left Gaza in 2005, but it is no longer quixotic. These activists are gearing up for a fight, and although their success is unlikely, it is far from impossible.

“I sat next to the prime minister and told him, ‘The sole picture of victory in this war that will allow us to lift our heads, to recover Jewish pride, and to return to the true source of our strength … is settlements across the entire Gaza Strip,’” the far-right Parliament member Limor Son Har-Melech said last week in a video posted to social media. This cause is personal for Har-Melech, who was herself evacuated in 2005 not from Gaza but from Homesh—one of four West Bank settlements that were also dismantled at the time, in what was intended as a trial run for future Israeli withdrawals. Since entering Parliament at the end of 2022, Har-Melech has dedicated herself to rolling back the consequences of the Gaza disengagement. Earlier this year, before the October 7 attack, she helped repeal the 2005 legislation that outlawed Israeli resettlement in Homesh and its fellow evacuated West Bank towns. Now she has turned her eyes to a bigger prize.

And she is not alone. In the early stages of Israel’s military operation in Gaza, photos emerged of Israeli soldiers raising flags and banners with slogans calling for the region’s resettlement. Some troops even brought along an 18-year-old road sign from Gaza’s uprooted Jewish community. Israel has mandatory military service, and the Israel Defense Forces are, as a result, politically diverse. These soldiers represent themselves, not Israeli policy, and army leadership has since clamped down on such displays. But the photos are part of a growing public push to resettle Gaza, which is why they were posted on social media in the first place, where the general public could see them. Along these lines, some soldiers in the army chaplaincy’s media division even produced a gauzy video reminiscing about the ancient Jewish community that populated Gaza 500 years ago. Its implication was hard to miss.

Back in Israel, this campaign is already mobilizing on the ground. On November 22, a constellation of grassroots organizations met for a conference in Ashdod—an Israeli city between Gaza and Tel Aviv—under the banner “Returning Home.” The group was addressed not just by far-right politicians like Har-Melech but by two backbenchers from Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, Ariel Kallner and Tally Gotliv. Both of these lawmakers rank at the bottom of Likud’s electoral list, having received minimal support in the party’s primaries, and neither holds significant sway. But they illustrate how the dream of resettling Gaza is not restricted to the political fringes, and should not be expected to stay there. In fact, Yossi Dagan, the longtime settler activist who also addressed the conference, commands one of the more capable lobbies in the Likud central committee. (Dagan was also evacuated from his West Bank settlement in 2005.) Last week, hundreds of activists for settlement gathered in central Israel for another conference, this one titled “Practical Preparation for Returning to Gaza.”

The escalating ambitions of this movement are evident in other ways. In July 2014, activists launched a Facebook community called “Returning to Gush Katif,” referring to the small group of Gaza settlements that was evacuated in 2005. Today, the page has more than 10,000 followers. On October 23, 2023, two weeks after Hamas’s slaughter, the group’s name was changed to “Returning to the Gaza Strip.”

Netanyahu is many things, but he is not a fool. He knows full well that this plan is a bad idea. He knows that new settlements would pose an exceptional security challenge, diverting Israeli forces from more important fronts to protect tiny pockets of people in Gaza. He knows that building civilian communities in the Strip would put him on a collision course with the Biden administration, the Sunni Arab states, and the international community. And yet, in a bid to cling to power, Netanyahu might try to do it anyway.

Since October 7, Netanyahu’s electoral support has completely collapsed. Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of Israelis want him to resign either now or after the war and that his party has lost half of its voters. Having presided over the bloodiest catastrophe in Israeli history, it seems profoundly improbable that Netanyahu will win another election, whenever one is held. But that won’t stop him from trying. And Netanyahu tends to make hard-right promises when attempting to win elections.

The Israeli leader made waves earlier this month when—in an attempt to recapture his deserting base—he said that he was proud that he’d prevented a Palestinian state, which he claimed would have ended up like Hamas-controlled Gaza. Many outside observers presented this statement as a new admission, but in actuality, Netanyahu first backtracked on his always-shaky commitment to Palestinian statehood during his 2015 reelection campaign. Likewise, the prime minister’s pledge to annex part or all of the West Bank—something he’d previously opposed—came during the 2019 election campaign, though he later reversed course at the behest of the Arab parties to the Abraham Accords. As Netanyahu prepares for a last-ditch attempt to save his cratering premiership, it would not be surprising if he promised future settlements in Gaza to reestablish his right-wing bona fides.

Israel’s current war government includes an opposition party led by Benny Gantz, a former general who is currently outpolling Netanyahu two to one, and who would not sign off on any resettlement adventure. But if Netanyahu is to somehow overtake Gantz in the next election, he’ll need to reunite the right behind him, and this might be how he tries to do it.

All of which is to say that interested parties should not underrate the prospect of Israeli settlements in Gaza. The political line of thinking that goes, “This is a self-evidently terrible idea, polls show most people oppose it, and so there’s no way it could happen” has had a demonstrably poor international track record since 2015. Nobody should be expecting this debate to take care of itself. The advocates for further settlement certainly aren’t.

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