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Land grab

The Israeli Settler Movement’s Ugly Postwar Plans for Gaza

The settlers and their allies take for granted that fewer Palestinians—not counting those already slain—will live in their homeland once the conflict is over.

Amir Levy/Getty Images
On January 28, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, attended a conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem about building Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern part of the West Bank.

For the Israeli settler movement, Hamas’s bloody October 7 incursion presented an opportunity. Barely two months into the Israel Defense Forces’ scouring of the Gaza Strip, the inner core of the movement gathered in a hall in the port town of Ashdod. They did not wear yellow ribbons, the color of solidarity with the hostages, and did not devote themselves to prayers for the hostages’ return. They wore orange and prayed for a different restoration: a reconquest of Gaza, the expansion of the Greater Land of Israel, and the dispossession of an entire people.

The Ashdod meeting, on November 22, foreshadowed an orgy of incitement at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28—a coming-out shindig for a revived front that binds together settler matriarch Daniella Weiss’s group, Nachala; the dregs of the old terrorist underground, in the form of convicted (though pardoned) militant Uzi Sharbag; mainline Likudniks; and the semi-fascist Jewish Power and Religious Zionist parties. The garish T-shirts, the fridge magnets, the jubilant bouncing all hailed an emboldened attitude: that the populace of Gaza should not be treated as a people—with the bare functional minimum of rights—but as an obstacle to be crudely trampled. While their immediate motives might be bloodlust or free real estate, the political goal is to make their ascendancy and power permanent. “This is our final opportunity to rebuild and expand the land of Israel,” the Likud Minister Haim Katz warned. Political will is aligning with real possibility, and the air is thick with the plague-smell of postwar planning. None of it includes the Palestinians.

For example. On January 10, Yinon Magal—who was once in the same hard-right party as Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and fantasized on air about machine-gunning fellow journalists “like Rocky” (he meant Rambo)—shared a proposal and petition supposedly compiled by residents of the Gaza Envelope, the protective circle of towns Hamas pierced in October. Under this scheme, Palestinian territory would be compressed to two tiny, separate districts around Khan Younis and Deir Al Balah, the rest of the Strip ringed by a kilometer-thick military zone, the northernmost districts given over to an industrial park and a seaside boardwalk. Beach strolls for Jews; ghettos for the rest. That the accompanying petition has barely scraped 3,000 signatures does not matter; its authors act to please God, not the electorate.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz, meanwhile, used valuable time in front of Europe’s top diplomats not to endorse an enduring political settlement but to pitch a Gulf State–style boondoggle: an artificial island dredged from the Gazan coast as a “commercial hub” for trade. Of what use an offshore port would be to a people without a home, Katz did not care to explain—nor did he seem to appreciate the coastline was not his to develop. (The European Union apparatchiks who had to sit through this video presentation were “perplexed”—diplomat-speak for “extremely pissed off.”)

Roughly two million Palestinians remain in Gaza. Their existence is daily becoming more tortured and desperate, but they are still large enough as a mass to seriously stall the settlers’ return. There are plans for that too. The Intelligence Ministry, which offers nonbinding advice to the Israeli government, suggested in a policy document (just five days after the Hamas offensive) that the entire population be expelled to a “sterile zone” in the Sinai Desert. Parallel propaganda efforts would make it “clear that there is no hope of returning.” The Misgav Institute—a right-wing think tank linked to Likud—published a similar proposal for the forced “transfer” of the entire population. Apparently the tiny messianist group Build Israel somehow managed to put its own paper in front of American lawmakers—including AIPAC ally Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina—suggesting that foreign aid to countries like Iraq and Turkey be made conditional on their accepting thousands of Palestinian refugees. In a statement accompanying the plan, the plotters said these would be the “correct, moral and humane avenues for the relocation of the Gazan population.”

At all points it is taken for granted that fewer Palestinians—not counting those already slain—will live in their homeland once the Israelis are through with them. To call this “moral and humane” or a “voluntary migration” smells of preemptive self-defence against the shackles of international law. But you can trust the settlers and their allies to say what others wouldn’t dare. At the Jerusalem conference in January, Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi described exactly and clearly what they mean: “‘Voluntary,’” Karhi explained, is “a state you impose [on someone] until they give their consent.”

If Benjamin Netanyahu had proposed any concrete plans for Gaza’s future, there would be room for fewer wild annihilatory schemes from others. He has not. No doubt when the government does unveil its proposal, it will contain the cruelty so openly displayed elsewhere, simply sheathed in the salving language of appeasement and reasonableness. It is in this gap that the settler movement operates. “Netanyahu left us an opening,” Daniella Weiss said in January. “He invites this pressure.” And it is from Weiss and her close colleague Yossi Dagan, the West Bank overlord, that the real threat comes. When they publish their maps, pins carefully placed on Gaza City, Khan Younis, and Rafah, their intent is backed by decades of experience as the deniable, unofficial, paramilitary arm of Israel’s nation-building project.

In one of the government’s few clear statements of postwar intent, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, freshly censured by the International Court of Justice, said Israel would not reoccupy Gaza. Promises like these, of course, are made to be broken; he also insisted on “military freedom of operation”—a security regime very much like that in the West Bank, which makes life hellish for Palestinians and emboldens the settlers who supplant them. The clearance of Palestinians from their homes and farms in Judea and Samaria usually begins with the designation of territory as “survey land,” “state land,” “closed military zones,” or “firing zones”—categories approved by the courts and enforced by the army. In a morbid sense, this typical faux-legal process has already been achieved in Gaza by dumb bombs and dynamite, no orders or writs required.

Any buffer region or defense line ringing the postwar Strip is precisely the zone coveted by settlers as the incubator for a new phase of reconquista, reapplying their methods and training from around Jenin and Hebron onto a pulverised and deracinated land flushed of its people. Here they can run up their outposts and blockhouses, to be followed by walled enclaves, and create a fait accompli: a network of exurbs and garrison towns laced with critical infrastructure like highways, water treatment plants, and power lines the police and the army have no choice but to defend. “Bullshit,” said the ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo in response to the conference’s subtitle, “Settlement Brings Security.” “They don’t defend us,” he said, “we have to defend them.” Which is precisely the point.

The IDF is a backstop. Kitted out with state-issued rifles, the settlers live for the chance to provoke confrontations that are the pretext for the seizure of yet more land, yet more blood. “Continuous, systematic violence meted out by settlers,” B’Tselem has said, “is part of Israel’s official policy, driving massive takeover of Palestinian farmland and pastureland.” It is apt indeed for our neoliberal age—and an ironic inversion of Israel’s tech start-up economy—that the leading edge of the state’s brutality should be “outsourced,” as the academic Tareq Baconi puts it, “to its colonial pioneers.” Such a method “is not a breakdown of the state’s monopoly on violence; it is the delegation of that violence to enforcers on the frontier.” The settlers have anointed themselves sentinels of the borderlands, both the lookouts and vanguard of the state even as they rebel, with God-given arrogance, against the nation they hope to enlarge.

The settlers’ political wing is much more visible and potent than it was in 2005, when troops were sent in to clear settlements like Gush Katif as part of the Sharon government’s “disengagement” from Gaza. In the Knesset, usual suspects like Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir are aided in their attempt to amend the Disengagement Law to allow free movement of Israelis in Gaza by several mainline Likudniks. Ben-Gvir, meanwhile, is just as content pulling a handgun on protesters as he is threatening to withdraw his Jewish Power Party from the emergency government and collapse Netanyahu’s coalition. Types like these are not a dissident strain; they are the spokesmen of an ideology encultured in the settlements now circling back and entering the mainstream. Present at the January conference: almost half of the governing coalition and five sitting ministers.

Nevertheless, we’re told to pay no heed to the cranks and lunatics. They’re just charlatans, these settlers, noisy but inconsequential; worry not, and listen to the adults in the room. “Israel is not about to rebuild any settlements in the Gaza Strip,” said the Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer, leading light of the liberal and secular school; the polls don’t support them, anyway—as if opinion polling (or democracy) mattered to people who want to hasten the dawn of Judgement Day. Meanwhile, American officials aver that they are very “troubled” by settler threats and “unequivocal” in their opposition to them, which is to say—not that bothered. The Biden administration thought about sanctioning Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. Instead, it kicked that can very hard down a dark path.

It is little comfort to know that every one of these bullish statements made by a settler-minister will end up on the charge sheet of The Hague, evidence of Israel’s breach of the provisional order not to incite genocide. The settlers continue to act as if international and domestic law were as relevant as Palestinian lives. In their two-front war against the secularity of the Israeli state and against Palestinian nationhood, they are plotting for a “speedy end,” as Bezalel Smotrich put it in his deranged “Decisive Plan,” published in 2017: a cap on the phase of “conflict management” that has seen Netanyahu forestall self-determination efforts for decades at the price of instability, and a complete closure on the possibility of a just settlement. “Full Israeli sovereignty,” Smotrich demands. “Any solution must be based on cutting off the ambition to realize the Arab national hope between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.” Talk of “solutions” implying the eradication or displacement of a people brings up the nastiest of historical memories, and it is verging on tasteless to stick “final” in front of that term. But when Smotrich and the settlers say they want this state of affairs to be “irreversible,” it is difficult to think of anything else.