Israeli government riven with division over future of Gaza after far-right calls to expel Palestinians
After more than 90 days of war in Gaza, in which at least 22,000 Palestinians are reported to have been killed, Israeli officials have shifted their attention to what happens once the fighting has ceased.
There has been considerable controversy over proposals from far-right members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. The pair, who Netanyahu needed to include in his coalition to form a government last year, have advocated for Palestinians in Gaza to be resettled in countries around the world, making space for Israeli civilians to reoccupy the area.
Israel’s allies, who have thus far supported its war aims, have been quick to condemn the proposal. The United States released a press statement on January 2 rejecting the plan as “inflammatory and irresponsible”. Washington confirmed its support for Gaza as Palestinian land. The statement further claimed that Netanyahu had reassured the US that the proposal does not reflect government policy.
But while Smotrich and Ben Gvir represent the most extreme factions of Israel’s ruling coalition and were frozen out of the war cabinet, it would be unwise to dismiss their comments as merely another incident of incitement against Palestinians.
The pair have the power to bring down the ruling coalition and Netanyahu if their demands are not heeded. And they have considerable support within the settler movement, which has been influential in the policy and practice of settlement building throughout Israel’s history.
And it is also important to note that proposals to relocate Palestinians from the Gaza Strip were initially proposed by Israeli lawmakers considered to be more moderate.
‘West should welcome Gaza refugees’
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on November 13, 2023, two Israeli lawmakers – former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon and centre-left politician Ram Ben-Barak, formerly deputy director of Mossad, wrote that countries around the world should accept some of Gaza’s population who “have expressed a desire to relocate”.
They criticised the international community for not fulfilling “their moral imperative” to “help civilians caught in the crisis”.
Intelligence minister, Gila Gamliel – who represents Likud, the mainstream conservative nationalist party led by Netanyahu – reiterated this proposal in an article in the Jerusalem Post on November 19, 2023. She referred to Gaza as “a breeding ground for extremism” and called for the “voluntary resettlement” of Palestinians outside the Gaza Strip.
Both these proposals suggested humanitarian concerns for Palestinians alongside security concerns for Israelis. But others who also support the plan do so out of strong religious ideology.
Return of the settlers?
As documented by political geographer David Newman, the Israeli settler movement mainly comprises religious Zionists who believe the greater land of Israel was promised to the Jewish people by God. In light of this, many believe that settling the land is an opportunity to fulfil God’s promise.
Following the 1967 and 1974 wars, they rejected those who believed returning land to the Arab countries would secure peace. Instead they advocated for the establishment of Israeli settlements to ensure the land was never relinquished. They have had significant influence on Israeli policy and practice and now find themselves represented in the corridors of power by Smotrich and Ben Gvir.
The movement was dealt a severe blow following the decision by former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan in 2005. Sharon evicted about 8,000 Israeli settlers from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip.
Settlers have been quick to respond to the current conflict, seeing it as an opportunity to fulfil the religious promise. At the end of December last year, the leader of the Nachala Israeli settlement movement, Daniella Weiss, appeared on mainstream television calling for Palestinians to be cleared from Gaza.
This was so that Israeli settlers “can see the sea … There will be no homes, there will be no Arabs – it’s just an elegant way of saying, I want to see the sea.” She declared that Gaza City had always been “one of the cities of Israel. We’re just going back. There was a historical mistake and now we are fixing it.”
What these positions fail to fundamentally understand is the deep connection Palestinians have to the land and their steadfastness in remaining there.
Weiss’s position – and the aspirations of the settler movement – appear to have been dealt a setback by Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, who has presented his plans for Gaza after the destruction of Hamas.
On January 5, he said: “Gaza residents are Palestinian, therefore Palestinian bodies will be in charge, with the condition that there will be no hostile actions or threats against the State of Israel.” Gallant further proposed that there should be no Israeli civil presence in Gaza.
An account in the Times of Israel said that the cabinet meeting at which Gallant outlined his proposal ended in acrimony, exposing the deep divisions in Netanyahu’s government.
Gallant’s proposal comes days before US secretary of state Antony Blinken is due to visit to discuss “transitioning to the next phase” of the war. The proposal has been presented to the US administration, although it does not yet form official policy.
As attention turns towards the end of the hostilities, Netanyahu will have a difficult juggling act in placating the different factions of his coalition and the Israeli public, as well as satisfying demands from the US. What is missing from the discussions thus far is the voice of the Palestinians – which must be put at the centre of any future solutions.
Leonie Fleischmann does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.