A controversial conference was held in Jerusalem on Sunday, January 29th, attended by Israeli ministers and calling for the resettlement of Gaza by Israeli Jews. The event, titled “Return to Gaza and Northern Samaria,” was organized by the right-wing NGO Sovereignty Movement and attended by over 10 Israeli government ministers from conservative parties.
The conference has sparked international condemnation, with the US “firmly opposing” any new settlements in occupied territories. However, Israeli leaders present doubled down on their stance, declaring the failure of past peace agreements and arguing Gaza must be re-settled by Jews for security reasons.
The Sunday event gathered over 4000 attendees to Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, including senior Likud party figures.
Prominent ministers present included National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and Transportation Minister Orit Strock.MK Zvika Fogel, former head of the council representing Gaza border towns, also spoke.
Event organizer Daniella Weiss stated intentions for the “voluntary emigration of Palestinians” from Gaza, to be replaced by new Jewish towns. The conference featured slick presentations on prospective settlements, with a website allowing visitors to ‘purchase’ virtual houses.
[Table with list of Israeli ministers attending]
Far-right Knesset Member Itamar Ben-Gvir promised attendees: “We will legislate a law for national preference in the Negev, in the Galil, in Judea and Samaria, in the Jordan Valley, in the mixed cities and also in Gaza.”
The provocative speeches amounted to rejection of all past Israeli disengagement from occupied land. Sovereignty Movement leaders called to rewrite the Oslo Accords peace process as “dead”.
The Gaza resettlement proposals have been met largely with shock and condemnation worldwide. More moderate Israeli ministers also distanced themselves from the extreme policy suggestions.
The Biden administration issued sharp criticism via the State Department, calling the potential rebuilding of settlements “reckless”. Behind the scenes, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has allegedly assured US officials no concrete actions will be taken.
At a press briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price commented: “We firmly oppose any unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions and that undercut efforts to advance negotiated two-state solution… And that very much includes any building or advancement of settlements in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, as well as the potential rebuilding of settlements in Gaza.”
The White House is said to be increasingly frustrated with Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government. President Biden has not contacted Netanyahu personally since he entered office last month, an unusual silent treatment for US-Israel relations.
UN Special Coordinator Tor Wennesland expressed dismay, tweeting: “I reiterate that all settlements are illegal under int’l law and remain a substantial obstacle to peace.”
Human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also condemned the potential expansion of settlements as breaches of the Geneva Convention on military occupation.
The Palestinian Authority denounced the conference proposals as “racist” and threatening further instability after recent Gaza conflicts.
Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Those who want to erase our existence need to understand that we are determined to stand up…against schemes of forced population transfer as well as apartheid.”
Both Turkey and Jordan, who Israel relies upon for regional cooperation, censured the fiery rhetoric at the Jerusalem conference. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted: “The efforts in question are racist and aim to continue occupation by violating international law.”
Visions of Israeli Settlement
Despite lacking any concrete policy plans, the Sunday conference made public the vision of Gaza held by Israel’s ascendent far-right. Settlement maps and architectural models left little room for coexistence with Gaza’s current majority Arab population.
Blueprint for Gazan Settlements
[Table summarizing key details of proposed settlements]
|Northern Gaza border
|2 sq mi
|Gaza City outskirts
|18 sq mi
|Gush Katif site
|1 sq mi
Event displays included detailed maps of 3 new sizable settlements slated for the Gaza Strip. These towns would house almost 100,000 new Israeli residents.
Minister Ofir Sofer told crowds the new developments would stretch along Gaza’s coastline, from its northern border down past former settlement sites. Further south, the Nisanit blueprint would encircle Gaza City itself.
Doubling Down on Past Failures?
The fiery speeches left no doubt that leaders wish to strong-arm Gazans into leaving their homes. However, the last time Israel attempted resettlement in 2005, the unilateral withdrawal from Gush Katif blockaded and impoverished Gaza while yielding Gaza rockets and tunnel threats for Israelis border towns.
Ministers offered no concrete plans to avoid past failures. When asked, MK Zvika Fogel gave vague visions of Gazans departing voluntarily if given financial incentives and entry to Egypt.
More moderate Likud ministers stayed away, including Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot slammed colleagues for “getting drunk on fantasies” rather than seeking realistic security solutions.
With the Gaza Strip barely recovering from recent devastation, its hard to see how new turmoil would not breed further extremism. Yet Israel’s far-right coalition has kept escalating its territorial ambitions despite US warnings.
All evidence suggests the Biden administration will lobbying fiercely behind the scenes to halt settlement expansion. However, if Netanyahu continues humoring his fringe coalition partners, a serious rift with Israel’s main international backer looks increasingly likely.
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