Ministers and parliamentarians in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government have attended a conference calling for Israeli resettlement of the Gaza Strip and “voluntary migration” of the Palestinian population elsewhere.
Sunday’s event in Jerusalem, called the “Victory of Israel Conference: Settlement Brings Security”, hosted speeches by well-known extremists in Netanyahu’s cabinet, including the national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich. It was attended by approximately 1,000 people, including 11 cabinet ministers and 15 members of the Knesset, some of them members of the prime minister’s Likud party.
The prominent role of government figures in the far-right conference appears to violate the international court of justice ruling last week that Israel must “take all measures within its power” to avoid acts of genocide in its war in Gaza, including the “prevention and punishment of genocidal rhetoric”.
The war in Gaza, now approaching its fourth month, was sparked by the unprecedented 7 October attack by the Palestinian group Hamas on Israeli communities that killed 1,140 people. More than 26,400 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive, and the strip’s 2.3 million people are grappling with a dire humanitarian crisis.
In their remarks on Sunday, both Ben-Gvir and Smotrich called for the re-establishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the north of the West Bank, known to some Israelis as Samaria.
Participants, who included influential rabbis, settlement leaders, and families of soldiers fighting in the Gaza Strip, were presented with maps and detailed preparations for the re-establishment of a Jewish presence in the areas inside what is considered internationally as the borders of a would-be Palestinian state.
Several participants carried guns, and outside the convention center vendors sold T-shirts reading: “Gaza is part of the land of Israel.” One speaker was Rabbi Uzi Sharbag, a former leader of the banned far-right terrorist group Jewish Underground.
Ben-Gvir said: “We must encourage voluntary migration. Let them leave. Part of correcting the mistake of the sin of the preconception that brought us to 7 October is to return home to Gush Katif [southern Gaza] and to northern Samaria. We have to return home because that is the Torah, that is morality, that is historic justice, that is logic and that is the right thing.”
He also reiterated his support for bringing back the death penalty for terrorist offenses.
Smotrich said in his speech: “I took a beating in the eighth grade when we opposed the terrible folly of the Oslo accords. We yelled until we were hoarse: ‘Don’t give them guns,’ and they didn’t listen to us,” he said, referring to the failed peace process with the Palestinians in the 1990s.
“I had the privilege of fighting against the expulsion from Gush Katif and northern Samaria. I paid for that with my own liberty.”
Other members of the coalition government in attendance included: Shlomo Karhi, the Likud communications minister; Orit Strook, a member of the far-right Religious Zionist party and the minister of settlements and national missions; Yitzhak Goldknopf, the leader of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and the housing minister; and Likud member of the Knesset Haim Katz.
The event drew horrified reactions from elsewhere in the Israeli political spectrum, as well as criticism from the US, Israel’s most important ally.
The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, said Netanyahu’s coalition government, elected in 2022, had “reached a new low”. “This poses international damage, undermines potential negotiations, endangers soldiers, and reflects a grave lack of responsibility,” he said.
A senior US official told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth: “The radical right’s conference with calls to renew Jewish settlement in Gaza is simply repulsive.
“This is an awful mistake by Netanyahu, who didn’t prevent it. It raises questions as to whether Bibi has his hands on the wheel at all,” he said, using the prime minister’s well-known moniker.
On Monday, France’s foreign ministry condemned the conference. “We expect from the Israeli authorities a clear denunciation of these positions,” a ministry spokesperson said.
Netanyahu’s office did not comment on the conference, but when asked about it the day before, he said attendees were “entitled to their opinions”.
The prime minister has previously dismissed suggestions that Israel will re-establish a civilian presence in Gaza after the conclusion of the war. Earlier this month, however, he said he would “not compromise on full Israeli security control over all of the territory west of the Jordan [river] – and that is in opposition to a Palestinian state”.
Netanyahu’s government, the most rightwing in Israel’s 75-year history, has made settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank a priority since it took office at the end of 2022. Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories are viewed as illegal by the majority of the international community, including the Biden administration.
The Israeli occupation began in 1967. Today about 500,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, forcibly evacuating approximately 8,000 settlers in the process.
Two years later, Hamas seized control of the coastal territory after winning a brief civil war with its secular rival Fatah, resulting in the Israeli and Egyptian blockade.
Many on the Israeli right have never forgiven what they regard as Israel’s left-leaning political and security establishments, as well as the judiciary, for the decision to leave Gaza.