Once considered a fringe pipe dream, the once taboo idea of Israelis recolonizing portions of Gaza has been reinvigorated after Hamas’ October 7 attack and the subsequent Israeli war on the embattled Palestinian territory, which has killed more than 22,000 Palestinians, internally displaced more than 1.9 million, and reduced the majority of the Strip into rubble.
Just as 2024 began, Israeli politicians renewed calls to recolonize Gaza, and recent remarks from Israeli lawmakers coupled with a new settler-colonist campaign suggest that Israeli annexation of the beleaguered Palestinian territory has been adopted as official government policy.
On January 1, 2024, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the press and members of his Jewish Power Party that the war presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza,” proclaiming,
We cannot withdraw from any territory we are in in the Gaza Strip. Not only do I not rule out Jewish settlement there, I believe it is also an important thing,”
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich echoed Ben Gvir’s remarks during his party’s faction meeting, touting,
[the] correct solution [is]… to encourage the voluntary migration of Gaza’s residents to countries that will agree to take in the refugees.”
Talking to members of his Religious Zionism Party, Smotrich predicted that “Israel will permanently control the territory of the Gaza Strip,” as well as reestablish settlements there. A few days before, in an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, Smotrich said,
We will rule there [Gaza] security-wise, and in order to rule there security-wise for a long time, we will have to be a civilian there.”
In a separate incident on Monday, Yisrael Beytenu (“Israel is our home”) party leader Avigdor Liberman advocated for Israel to reoccupy southern Lebanon. Israel occupied part of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.
Liberman maintained that Israel would not annex or build settlements in Lebanon but stressed:
[e]verything between the Litani [River] and Israel must be under the control of the IDF [Israeli military].”
“If Lebanon won’t pay in territory, we haven’t done anything,” Liberman said.
And just before the new year, on December 27, 2023, Tzivka Foghel, a member of Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, told Israeli Kan radio that Hamas “will pay the price, that we will control the area and bring Jewish settlements.” Foghel clarified he doesn’t just want to re-establish the settlements Israel withdrew from in 2005 but rather take over the entire northern section of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli lawmakers’ inflammatory rhetoric mirrors parts of Israeli society pushing for Israeli settler-colonists to return to the Gaza Strip and even colonize Lebanon. The December 1 issue of Israeli religious youth magazine, “Small World,” outlined five new Israeli settlements south of the Litani River in what would become occupied Lebanon as part of their proposal for the war’s day-after plan.
In this weekend’s #Israeli religious youth magazine (‘Small World’) a plan for five new Israeli settlements including Tyre – in what would be occupied #Lebanon (south of the Litani River) – is presented under the title “first draft for the day-after plan.” Insane. pic.twitter.com/jJycHp2BfR
— Itay Epshtain (@EpshtainItay) December 1, 2023
In line with the politicians’ comments, the Israeli government recently allocated 4.3 million shekels ($1.2 million) in November to “document” Israeli settlements in Gaza, which were withdrawn in 2005. The project is to be handled by Israel’s Minister of Heritage, Amihai Eliyahu, who made headlines in recent months after calling for dropping nuclear bombs on Gaza.
Perhaps very little in the grand scheme of things, but overnight 600K ILS were allotted to reinforce (occupied) East Jerusalem as “national tourism capital”, and 4.3 million ILS to “documenting” Israeli settlements in #Gaza (withdrawn in 2005). The latter will be implemented by… pic.twitter.com/QPw5wKAmUr
— Itay Epshtain (@EpshtainItay) November 28, 2023
Israel’s campaign to resettle Gaza
During a meeting of hundreds of Israelis in the city of Ashdod in November, Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, the government body overseeing settlements in the Israeli-occupied northern West Bank, encouraged participants to reach out to their government representatives in support of recolonizing Gaza. Dagan told the crowd,
I call from here to all the ministers of the government and to their head, the prime minister — make your voices heard now, lift up your heads. Let it be known that you support the appeal to renew Jewish settlement throughout all of the Gaza Strip. The nation is waiting for you.”
Dagan is currently leading the Returning Home movement, a coalition of 11 organizations made up of thousands seeking to annul the core part of the 2005 Disengagement Law prohibiting an Israeli civilian presence in Gaza. The initiative has already received government support. Israeli parliamentary members from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party submitted a bill to amend the Disengagement Law to grant Israelis freedom of movement in Gaza after the war. Likud members of parliament (or Knesset) Ariel Kellner and Tally Gotliv spoke at the Returning Home inaugural event, along with Jewish Power Party MK Limor Son Har-Melech.
The “correct solution” to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “to encourage the voluntary migration of Gaza’s residents to countries that will agree to take in the refugees,”“Israel will permanently control the territory of the Gaza Strip,” https://t.co/bJG9jFN0df pic.twitter.com/YxpwdAL5vO
— Abdullah Abu Shawesh (@AM_Shawesh) January 6, 2024
In March 2023, the Israeli parliament annulled part of the law forbidding Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank after Dagan lobbied for the legislative change. Dagan was evacuated from one of the four settlements in the northern West Bank in 2005. He did not respond to MintPress News requests for an interview.
A Longstanding Agenda
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967 during the Six-Day War and re-established the first settlement in 1970. In 2005, Israel evacuated around 9,000 Israeli settler-colonists from Gaza. Despite Israel dismantling the bloc of 17 settlements known as Gush Katif, human rights experts say the Gaza Strip remains occupied to this day.
“The test under international law as to whether or not a territory is being occupied and by whom is effective control,” Michael Lynk, who served as the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories from 2016 to 2022, told MintPress News.
“Hamas was ruling Gaza internally, but because Israel had this comprehensive air, sea, and land blockade over Gaza and controlled who and what got into Gaza and who and what left Gaza, it is the occupying power,” Lynk added.
Settler-colonist calls to return to Gaza began as soon as disengagement occurred, with government notions of reestablishing settlements in the Strip quietly materializing behind the scenes.
In 2018, reports revealed the Israeli military was shifting its offensive operations in Gaza from bombardment to carrying out missions that “will enter Gaza and dissect it in two, and even occupy significant parts of it.”
As a reminder, Israel has carried out several schemes throughout the decades to transfer Gaza’s population out of the Strip. Palestinian-Dutch analyst Mouin Rabbani wrote in Mondoweiss how, even before Israel occupied Gaza in 1967, it tried to push Palestinian refugees from Gaza to Libya and Iraq and, after its occupation, began encouraging emigration to the West Bank. In 1969, Israel attempted to send 60,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Paraguay with payment and the promise of citizenship. The plan was discontinued after two Palestinian transferees killed an Israeli embassy staff member in Asuncion.
After the Knesset vote last year to annul part of the 2005 Disengagement Law, Israeli lawmakers came out in support of a return to Gaza. MK Son Har-Melech urged Israelis not to fall into complacency.
“We must not rest on our laurels or the euphoria of the moment,” Son Har-Melech said. “We must galvanize… the return home to the region of Gush Katif, which was abandoned [in 2005] in an act of terrible folly and has become a nest of terror.”
In a conversation with Israeli Channel 7, Minister of National Missions Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party said, “I believe that, at the end of the day, the sin of the disengagement will be reversed.”
In response, the Israeli NGO Peace Now said, “It is clear that in addition to the judicial coup, a messianic revolution is taking place. This government will inevitably destroy our country. They will also deepen the occupation, ignite the region, and reestablish a Jewish supremacist regime from the river to the sea.”
“A house on the beach is not a dream”
As the trend to recolonize Gaza spreads, Lynk considers the option of resettlement in Gaza — even with the state’s most right-wing government in its history — out of the question, explaining to MintPress News that:
If the Americans have already said they’re not in favor of resettling Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip into Egypt or elsewhere in the world, you can be sure the Americans, as much as they’ve protected Israel, would be against any idea of reestablishing Israeli settlements in Gaza.”
While Netanyahu appears to have brushed off the notion of Israeli resettlement in Gaza, saying in December that “it’s not a realistic goal,” he has endorsed military control of the Strip. “Gaza will be demilitarized, and there won’t be any military threat threatening Israel from the Strip. For this to happen, control of the area is required,” Netanyahu said.
That idea was reiterated by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant this week when he unveiled his post-war plan for Gaza, which would see Israel keeping security control of the Strip with an Israeli-guided Palestinian body carrying out administrative responsibilities.
Mairav Zonszein, an analyst at the nonprofit the International Crisis Group, doesn’t believe that top Israeli officials making the decisions on Gaza are aiming for resettlement. Still, she also doesn’t rule out the possibility.
“That’s not on their agenda, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t come to a point where that would be part of what we see, just because… it’s becoming more of a war of attrition,” Zonszein told MintPress News, emphasizing that while it might not be Netanyahu’s goal, he also hasn’t condemned politicians advocating for resettlement.
The idea of recolonizing Gaza is also gaining momentum with the Israeli public. Images of Israeli soldiers waving Gush Katif settlement flags in Gaza have circulated online. Israeli singers Hanan Ben Ari and Narkis have sung about returning to the settlements when performing for soldiers.
The renowned Israeli singer Hanan Ben Ari performed at an Israeli military base near the Gaza envelope, singing “We are returning to Gush Katif.”
Gush Katif was an Israeli settlement situated in the heart of the Gaza Strip 18 years ago.
— Younis Tirawi | يونس (@ytirawi) October 24, 2023
A Channel 12 poll in November found that 44% of Israelis favor renewing settlement in Gaza. When asked what should happen with Gaza when the war is over, 32% answered, “Israel should remain permanently and renew Jewish settlement.”
Under the banner, “A house on the beach is not a dream!” Harei Zahav, an Israeli real estate firm known for building settlements in the West Bank, advertised building Gaza settlements, writing, “We have begun clearing rubble and fending off squatters.”
Yet since sparking controversy, the company’s CEO, Zeev Epshtein, said it was simply a bad joke.
“It was a sort of satirical idea,” Epshtein told Haaretz. “We’re not building, and we have no intention of building. We want it to happen, but it’s the state’s decision. We have no influence on it.”
Despite claiming it was satire, the social media blunder illustrates how Israelis are responding in this moment.
“[Harei Zahav] name half a dozen reestablished and new #Israeli settlements, and show their approximate location throughout occupied #Gaza,” Israeli human rights lawyer Itay Epshtain wrote on the social media platform X. “While this is a media stunt, it captures a deep sentiment favoring territorial acquisition and colonization at the expanse [sic] of #Palestinians.”
Other events discussing Gaza resettlement have occurred since Returning Home’s November event. In December, during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, a coalition of settler-colonist groups held the Practical Preparation for Gaza Settlement Conference in Tel Aviv. At the end of December, another group pushing for resettlement, Going Home – Returning to Gush Katif, also held a discussion featuring leaders of the Nachala settler-colonist movement, Daniella Weiss and Zvi Elimelech Sharbaf.
Going Home – Returning to Gush Katif declined to speak with MintPress News. Nachala is a prominent sponsor of the resettlement campaign, even releasing advertisements after the Tel Aviv conference stating, “Gaza is the Land of Israel! Fight. Liberate. Settle,” along with a hotline to register with the movement.
Following the conference, ads were taken out stating “Gaza is the Land of Israel! Fight. Liberate. Settle.” Those interested are invited to call a registration hotline for re-established settlements in Gaza. pic.twitter.com/Y8RuHa72z4
— Itay Epshtain (@EpshtainItay) December 15, 2023
Nachala will hold a conference on January 28 in Jerusalem, presenting plans — including maps and the various stages — for colonizing Gaza. Nachala didn’t respond to MintPress News’ requests for comment but told Channel 12 that thousands of Israelis have expressed interest in joining the movement.
“The public demand for renewed settlement in the Gaza Strip is increasing. After the terrible massacre on October 7, there was a great call among the public that the victory of the war includes Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip,” Nachala representatives told Channel 12.
Zonszein explained how settlement and safety often go hand-in-hand in the Israeli perspective.
“What Israel is doing in Gaza is very much in line with what it’s always done to occupied Palestinian territory,” Zonszein said. “That you need to put people on the ground — settlers and soldiers — in order to provide security has always been part of the Israeli understanding of how to do things.”
So, as the weeks turn into months and war rages, Israel’s settler-colonist fantasy could very well manifest into reality.
Feature photo | A family flees the Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp with their belongings in the central Gaza Strip, on January 8, 2024. Majdi Fathi | NurPhoto via AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye and The New Arab and Gulf News.