Resettle Gaza conference strikes at deep debate on security and destiny

Chants heard at the conference included "death to terrorists" and "Oslo is dead."

 The Resettle Gaza Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024 (photo credit: FLASH90/CHAIM GOLDBERG)
The Resettle Gaza Conference at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024
(photo credit: FLASH90/CHAIM GOLDBERG)

With its loud music, kiddie corner, tables hawking t-shirts and magnets – even selling dog tags proclaiming a Jewish return to Gaza similar in design to those popularly used to show support for the return of Israeli hostages – and registration for hypothetical Gaza settlements, the atmosphere at the Gaza Resettlement Conference, sponsored by the Nachala movement held on Monday at the Jerusalem Conference Center was both exciting and frenzied.

Calls from the audience of “Death to the terrorists” encouraged and joined by Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir – who was among 12 cabinet members and 15 MKs in attendance – and “Oslo is dead, the people of Israel lives,” which Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan urged those attending to shout after him, and rabbis evoking Biblical passages, had teens and young men on their feet jumping and in unison, chanting and waving banners.

Israel has to return sovereignty “from the river to the sea,” insisted right-wing activist Nadia Matar. Israel will have no security without Jewish settlement in Gaza, she said. Linda Pardes-Friedburg, 60, from Neve Daniel, contemplated the move not necessarily for herself but perhaps for her children or grandchildren. Jewish presence provides eyes and ears for the military and brings prosperity to Palestinian neighbors, she said. Avraham Shaviv, 22, from Jerusalem, said he was ready to go back to set up a home in Beit Hanun where land would be cheap, if not free, he said, having fought at Re’im on Oct. 7 and just returned from reserve duty in Gaza. 

Ze’ev Toper, from Ma’aleh Adumim, said he was in to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state but needed a proposed settlement with an Olympic-sized pool – though he wasn’t sure about his wife; and Sarit Waltz, 49, now of Beit Shemesh but formerly of the Gush Katif settlement of Netzarim – the last settlement to be evacuated in August 2005 – dreams of returning to the Gaza where she spent her childhood and was married.

“It is part of our country. It is important that Israelis as Jewish people live in the Gaza Strip,” she said. “This country is too small for two populations. We Jews have only one little land. They have a lot of other Arab countries to go to. No war can do everything for everyone. I am not the UN. I am not for my enemy. I think of my people.”
 Ministers and MK's dance during the 'Resettle Gaza Conference' at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024 (credit: FLASH90/CHAIM GOLDBERG)
Ministers and MK's dance during the 'Resettle Gaza Conference' at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024 (credit: FLASH90/CHAIM GOLDBERG)

Attitudes to Jewish resettlement of Gaza

The presence of right-wing politicians indicates a readiness to jump on the bandwagon, while polls show varying data on re-settlement among the Jewish Israeli public: a TAU poll from Wednesday indicates that about half (52%) support the establishment of Jewish civilian settlements after the end of the war, but with the majority of support coming from opinion-holders among the voters of the coalition parties (79%), compared to broad opposition among opposition voters (74%). A Mitvim survey from November found that 28% believe the long-term goal of the war is annexation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, while 27% support an agreement based on the two states, and another 25% unilateral separation. 

Surveys conducted at the Accord Center (affiliated with the Hebrew University) since the beginning of the war indicate that the majority believe the construction of settlements will not contribute to security: in a study conducted at the end of November, 59% agreed with the statement that the goal of the war should be to defeat Hamas, achieve a long-term arrangement in the Gaza Strip, and return IDF soldiers to Israel. Only 23% agreed with the statement that the goal should be to defeat Hamas, re-establish settlements, and leave IDF soldiers in for an extended period. Eighteen percent did not know.

Dr. Eyal Pinko, from Bar-Ilan’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and Department of Political Studies, said the re-settlement campaign is more fantasy than reality, with Israel facing pressure on all fronts, if a step in that direction is taken. Internationally, there will be opposition to such a move; economically, Israel’s already shaky economy won’t be able to take the added burden of financing the re-settlement enterprise, and in security terms, the military and police are not equipped to protect 1.9 million displaced, while protecting settlers from rampant crime and Hamas activity.

“This will bring a lot of (negative) attention from the international community and Israel will not be able to stand up to all that pressure. I don’t see any scenario like that getting (off the ground,) and I am not a left-wing guy. It would require the IDF to bring a lot of military power as a police mission. I don’t see any possibility of any military or police forces doing that kind of mission. Nobody has that kind of manpower,” said Pinto.

The inefficiency of UNIFIL forces along the southern Lebanon border has also proven that such a force is not an answer to providing security, he said.

The main problem, Pinko said, is that there has been no clear strategy in the war and no clear indication of where it is going.

What is clear, said Dr. (Lt. Col.) Omer Zanany, a strategist and political-security consultant, who serves as the director of the political-military joint unit of the Mitvim Institute and the Berel Katznelson Foundation, for the promotion of Israeli-Palestinian peace said that this will be a long-ranging war – of at least a year – and with no balance of interest reached between the two parties, the conflict will only escalate, as happens in unresolved conflicts.

“When you give money to your rival without changing the basic motivation to kill, which is what happened with (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu when he weakened the Palestinian Authority and went behind the PA to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates… it will (blow up) in your face,” he said. “If Netanyahu were not supporting the re-settlement campaign, there would not have been the re-settlement conference last night. I am not surprised the conference took place, but I am sad to see political figures from Likud joining. We know who [Finance Minister and Religious Zionist Party head MK Bezalel] Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are and what they want. But Netanyahu is the cause of the problem.

“There has to be a strategic end to the war combined with a new reality, not only for Gaza but for the whole Palestinian arena, the region, and the whole world. We see the signal for an escalation in the West Bank, and we are not even talking about the North. The idea is that Gaza alone can’t solve things.”

The first law in security terms when you want to de-escalate a conflict that has reached such proportions is to avoid friction, he said, and placing Jewish settlements in Gaza would do just the opposite.

“We already see the friction in the West Bank and what it does to us when they put (outposts) deep inside the West Bank near Palestinian villages, how many soldiers have to play cat and mouse with the hilltop youth. That is on a very small scale in comparison to what it would be like in (a re-settled) Gush Katif with 2 million Palestinians – who we still don’t know where they will live,” he said. “The idea of putting civilians inside a population of 2 million is the worst idea to bring security to Israel… we see what is happening in the South Hebron Hills and what happened in Huwara.”

Zanany said since Israel will neither be able to transfer, exterminate, or make Hamas and its supporters surrender, he foresees a continuation of a “high voltage conflict” for at least a year, as Netanyahu fails to determine a strategic direction to ending the fighting.

It will be impossible to stabilize a Palestinian governing authority if there are settlements inside Gaza, he said, necessitating Israel to remain there as an occupying force. If soldiers were to remain in Gaza to protect Jewish settlements, it could be similar to the situation the IDF faced in Southern Lebanon, where some 33 soldiers were killed every month, he noted.

“If we bring in settlements, we are talking about needing maybe 100,000 soldiers (to maintain security) only in the Gaza Strip, including reserve soldiers. The situation in Gaza today can’t be compared to what was before. We created a monster there called Hamas and now we have to deal with it,” he said. “We are in a completely different state of radicalization in Palestinian society, where there is no hope and they have nothing to lose, no political horizon. It will be a state of war, not a state of peace.”

Deploying a large number of soldiers into Gaza for a long period will mean a weakened military with depleted strength to face threats on other fronts, he said.

“Hamas is still very strong in the West Bank… there will be escalation in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” he said. “We are not talking only of IDF in Gaza, it will also re-escalate in the West Bank. There will be high-intensity conflict in both arenas.”

A concerning implication of re-settlement in Gaza is that it would send the message that Israel can’t be trusted, he added, that Israel has crossed a red line not only with its most important ally – the US – but also with the very delicate and extremely important security asset that is Egypt, which would spread to other Arab countries, including Jordan and those in the Abraham Accords.

“We are going to ruin our special relations (with the US), and this is a very big attack on our security relations in terms of armaments, money, and deterrence. It will be a journey of isolation for us not only in the region but in the whole world,” said Zanany.

The economic implications of such a re-settlement move could cost the economy an estimated tens of billions of dollars to maintain, he said, which would affect other aspects of the budget.

“Political issues and what is happening on the ground will make it a whole different amount of money than we can even imagine today. The implications will not be on an Israeli state that is a good friend of the US and Europe.”