Israeli Settlers Left Gaza in 2005. They Now See a Chance to Return.

A group of Israelis hoping to live in Gaza at the end of the war have already published maps depicting Jewish-majority towns in the area. Far-right Israeli lawmakers have drawn up plans to make such settlements legal. And Israel’s Minister of National Security has called on Arab residents to leave Gaza so that Jews can populate the coastal strip.

After four months of war and a death toll that Gaza officials say exceeds 27,000, international pressure is mounting on Israel to withdraw from Gaza. But a small group of Israelis are pushing for the opposite: they want Israel to retain control of the area, from which Hamas launched the deadliest attack in Israeli history, and to restore Jewish settlements that were dismantled during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

“Once the war is over, we will build our houses there,” said Yair Cohen, 23, a reserve soldier, who said his family was expelled from Gaza in 2005. “The question is not whether we will return when the war is over. the fighting is over, but will there be a Gaza.”

For the Palestinians, the settlers’ plans would most likely end in mass displacement and end their dream of a Palestinian state – a dream that much of the world would like to see become a reality. “Israel wants the Palestinian people to choose between destruction and displacement,” Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour told the organization last month.

But as unlikely as resettlement may seem to outsiders, the idea is being promoted at a time when Israel has yet to decide how to govern post-war Gaza.

While the United States and other powers are pushing for Gaza to become part of a Palestinian state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has other priorities, including staying in power and appeasing his far-right coalition partners. In the absence of a post-war government plan, settlement talks are filling the vacuum and alarming Israel’s allies.

The movement to settle Gaza is driven by nationalist fervor, religious fervor and security concerns after Oct. 7, when Hamas-led fighters from Gaza stormed the Israeli border, killing about 1,200 people and taking 240 others hostage, according to Israeli officials.

The ensuing war – and the lack of a clear and alternative plan for Gaza’s future – offers what the settlers see as an opportunity. For nearly two decades, settlers and their supporters viewed the 2005 withdrawal as a catastrophic setback.

The Israeli Prime Minister and Minister of Defense have ruled out resettlement and the idea has no support from most of the Israeli public. A Hebrew University poll in December found that 56 percent of Israelis oppose Gaza resettlement. But a vocal minority is trying to build momentum behind their project, and they are backed by a third of lawmakers in Israel’s far-right governing coalition.

The settlers’ dream of Israelis returning to Gaza would mean replacing the Palestinians currently living there, and while the settler movement is divided over how to do that, some extremist settlers are calling for deportation.

At a recent settler conference in Jerusalem attended by 3,500 people, including some far-right ministers, a group held up signs reading: “Only transfer will bring peace.”

While addressing the gathering, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s far-right minister of national security, saw the posters and told the group: “You’re right.” About the Palestinians living in Gaza, he then added: “They must leave here.”

Some attendees shouted, “Only eviction!”

The settler movement has a long history and powerful supporters, including Mr. Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister. Both men wield outsized influence because their small parties are crucial to keeping Netanyahu’s governing coalition in power.

The Israeli government began building settlements after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and Gaza from Egypt.

Most countries consider the settlements illegal and view them as an obstacle to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. Although Israel withdrew from Gaza, more than 200 settlements remain in the occupied West Bank, housing approximately half a million Israelis.

In addition to far-right politicians, the movement also includes Israelis who lived in Gaza settlements before 2005, as well as religious hardliners from the West Bank settlements. A keynote speaker at rallies, Uzi Sharbav, was convicted of participating in the murder of three Palestinians in the 1980s. Although he was sentenced to decades in prison, he was pardoned in 1990.

Some settlers view life in Gaza through a religious prism, seeking to inhabit the land of their ancestors in fulfillment of what they believe was a promise God made in Biblical times. Others say settlements are essential to Israel’s security, arguing that the presence of civilians among Palestinians makes it harder for militants to stage attacks.

Avishai Bar-Yehuda, 67, was forced to leave the strip with his family almost two decades ago. Now dying of cancer, his dying wish is to be buried in the sands of Gaza.

“We pray to return,” he said at the settlers’ meeting.

The pressure to resettle Gaza is happening both through political channels, in which far-right politicians try to give the country legal support, and at the grassroots.

During a provocation last month, settlement supporters briefly sent their children to military lines to play in the buffer zone near the Gaza border.

In November, eleven members of the Israeli parliament, mainly from Netanyahu’s party, Likud, proposed repealing a law banning Israeli citizens from entering Gaza.

Likud has not put forward these proposals, and Netanyahu has called resettlement “an unrealistic goal.” The United States recently imposed financial sanctions on several settlers in the West Bank amid an increase in settler-led attacks on Palestinians there, highlighting foreign opposition to the settlers’ plans.

But the settler movement has a reputation for ignoring both foreign criticism and official policy, often building unauthorized settlements that later receive government approval.

Settler leaders are already drawing up plans to infiltrate Gaza, hoping to build unauthorized villages that could eventually be recognized.

In early February, more than a hundred activists entered a closed military zone near the border in an attempt to enter Gaza. The army sent them away.

One of the activists, Amos Azaria, explained how supporters would start with small encampments.

“We will continue to try to get in,” he said in an interview shortly after the failed raid. “If we were successful today, we would probably be removed quickly. But we will take more substantial steps. We arrive with tents and try to get settled. Many families are willing to do what is necessary.”

Some believe that Israeli soldiers already in Gaza could help the settlers. And dozens of soldiers have posted videos from Gaza expressing support for resettlement.

“It’s our land, everything – including Gaza,” Captain Avihai Friedman, a military rabbi, recently told a group of soldiers in Gaza. “The whole promised land.”

Colonial leaders have tried to shake off the idea that they are driven solely by religious beliefs. They claim that such communities make Israel safer. If the settlers had been allowed to remain in Gaza, it would have been more difficult for Hamas and other militants to stage the October 7 attack.

“Only settlements justify long-term military presence, which in turn guarantees security,” said Brig. General Amir Avivi, former deputy commander of the Gaza Division and now chairman of the Israel Defense and Security Forum, a right-wing institution.

Many Israelis disagree. “The settlements there posed a security risk,” said Omer Zanany, a security expert at a foreign policy research group, the Mitvim Institute and the Berl Katznelson Foundation. “Israeli forces had to escort children to kindergartens and schools.”

Husam Zomlot, the Palestinians’ ambassador to Britain, compared the resettlement to the mass displacement of Palestinians surrounding the area. The creation of Israel in 1948. “The Biden administration could end all of this tomorrow if it stopped protecting, arming and financing not only Israel but its illegal expansion,” he said.

The opposition also extends to some settler leaders. Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, said those who supported resettlement “had no grasp of reality,” adding: “There is no justification for the deportation of Palestinians.”

Although Netanyahu’s government does not officially support resettlement, critics fear the idea will gain momentum because Israeli leaders have not proposed a real alternative vision.

“What scares me is that the settler movement is happening on an empty field,” Mr. Zanany said. ‘No one else is promoting a post-war vision.’

Patrick Kingsley reporting contributed.

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