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The settler movement already has plans for Gaza

Without a clear plan for Gaza’s post-Hamas future, Israeli settlers are filling the vacuum with proposals to reoccupy

In the aftermath of the brutal Hamas terror attack Oct. 7, Israel has launched a ground invasion aimed at “eliminating Hamas.” Many of Israel’s Western allies have expressed concern about this operation given the lack of a clear plan for what will happen in Gaza after Hamas is eliminated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that “Israel will, for an indefinite period will have the overall security responsibility” of Gaza. President Joe Biden even said publicly on 60 Minutes that the reoccupation of Gaza would be a “big mistake.”

In the absence of a day-after-Hamas plan from the Israeli government, one group in Israel — the settler movement — is offering one. As Israel moves forward with its military operation, the settler movement is increasing the pressure to reoccupy the Gaza Strip and establish Jewish settlements there.

Even before the current war in Gaza, several ministers representing the Religious Zionist party had already commented that the reoccupation of Gaza is inevitable. But now, right-wing commentators and Knesset members are trying to build on top of the public rage to advocate for the official operational objective to reoccupy Gaza and reestablish settlements there. Even Israeli pop star Hanan Ben Ari, while performing for reserve units on the Gaza border, led chants of “Going back to Gush Katif!” (the name of the former block of 17 Israeli settlements in Gaza) to raucous applause.

Member of Knesset Amit Halevi of the Likud Party has already published a detailed plan, where he suggests building border fences around five main cities in Gaza to fragmentize Palestinians further and increase Israel’s military control. This plan reflects a similar strategy for creating settlements as the one then-Labor Minister Yigal Allon suggested for the Jewish settlement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 War (known as the Allon Plan). According to Halevi’s plan, Israel would also establish five mega-settlements between Palestinian blocks, each with a population of 100,000 Jews, as an enhanced human buffer zone.

So far, Israel’s main Western allies — including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy — have unequivocally backed Israel in its response to “Black Shabbat,” even as the Palestinian death toll surpasses 9,000 deaths, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Ministry of Health, and hundreds of thousands of people are displaced. Building on top of this international support, the Israeli government has defined the objective of the war as “crushing and eliminating” Hamas’ military and ruling capabilities.

In a presentation to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Oct. 20, Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant laid out the expected three phases of the war in Gaza. The first is a military campaign to “defeat and destroy Hamas.” The second is a lower intensity warfare to “eliminate pockets of resistance.” The third phase is establishing a “new security regime” in the Gaza Strip, thus transferring day-to-day responsibilities to another, unnamed party.

The practical meaning of this plan would be that, at least initially, the Israeli military would take control of the Gaza Strip. Because Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, Israel would need to conquer the territory entirely to eliminate Hamas’ governmental and military capabilities. “I do not know of any ability we have to eliminate Hamas, including its infrastructure and institutions, without invading and conquering the entire territory,” Brigadier General Barak Hiram, the next commander of the Gaza division who helped defend the southern kibbutzim, told Israeli media. Senior ministers, such as Benny Gantz, have repeatedly said the war would take at least several months.

Yet even if Hamas infrastructure and institutions are destroyed, Israel cannot eliminate the ideas driving it, and the affiliation many people in Gaza have with Hamas or with the Islamic Jihad.

This occupation of Gaza, even if it is intended to be only temporary, would likely be quite prolonged because Israel does not have answers to the critical question of who would govern Gaza post-Hamas. The nature of who could be the partner of Israel in Gaza to allow this “new security regime” is deliberately left unclear: Are they members of the weakened and corrupt Palestinian Authority? An international alliance led by neighboring Arab states? A fresh set of leaders from Gaza who have survived Hamas’ 16-year purge of democratically inclined civilians? Only mentioning a vague transfer of responsibility in Gaza without identifying who it will be transferred to — especially when all the alternatives appear to be diplomatically and politically unlikely — carries serious potential consequences of an indefinite Israeli reoccupation.

Gallant’s strategy indicates Israel is likely preparing to occupy Gaza for the first time since its disengagement in 2005. Back then, 8,000 settlers were evacuated from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. Israel has retained de-facto military control over these territories through strict border policies, checkpoints and a blockade of Gaza, enacted after Hamas was elected and took control of the Strip in 2007. Since Hamas came to power, there have been no elections in Gaza.

The disengagement from “Gush Katif” became a historical political turning point for the political right-wing settler movement. They have subsequently invested heavily to impact public opinion, framing the disengagement as a political sin that led directly to the Hamas regime and the constant missiles threatening towns and villages, especially in southern Israel.

As the settler strategy struck deeper roots in the Israeli discourse, a consensus grew that began to advocate for concrete policy changes. The settler right-wing first step was to reestablish settlements in the northern West Bank, where the Disengagement Plan Implementation Law, passed in 2005, prohibited any civilian presence there. In March 2023, the Knesset canceled the prohibition.

Although Netanyahu assured the U.S. that Israel is still committed to its international obligations as part of the disengagement plan, other ministers and politicians like Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich and Kahanist minister Limor Son Har-Melech of the Jewish Power party, continue to advance establishing outposts in this restricted area in the northern West Bank.

These messianic plans of the Israeli right wing would be alarming on any day, but are even more so during this time of war when there is an actual discussion of reoccupying Gaza. In light of the profound vacuum of Israel’s strategy for the day after Hamas is defeated, the risk of the settler movement making progress on this ground is even more dangerous. They have demonstrated through their actions in the West Bank that they would not wait for official approval of a grand plan, as suggested by Halevi, before building illegal Jewish outposts.

Several of the settlers’ techniques used in the West Bank, such as Knesset Members using their parliamentary immunity to establish public offices in Palestinian territories, could potentially be employed in the Gaza Strip. This means that even if the Israeli government does not want to reestablish settlements in Gaza — as it publicly claims — it is uncertain how they could de-facto block the settler movement from doing so.

The international community must not let rage and pain from the terror attack be used as a blank check for a destructive, messianic, Jewish supremacist mission to settle in Gaza. A reestablishment of settlements would lead to tremendous Palestinian suffering, a humanitarian nightmare, and the loss of any international credibility that Israel has left. 

To prevent such a scenario, the international community must require Israel to provide assurances that it will maintain its international obligations under the Disengagement Plan — including specifying how it would block any attempt to establish Jewish outposts or civil presence in the Gaza Strip.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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