How the Israeli resettlement of Gaza went from being a fringe view to a real possibility

Special How the Israeli resettlement of Gaza went from being a fringe view to a real possibility
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Israel announced its Gaza disengagement plan in 2003, and implemented it two years later. The withdrawal happened 38 years after the Israeli army captured Gaza from the Egyptian army. (Reuters /File)
Special How the Israeli resettlement of Gaza went from being a fringe view to a real possibility
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A baby holds an Israeli flag as members of the Israeli settler community gather at a convention in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024, calling for Israel to rebuild settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (REUTERS)
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Updated 01 February 2024
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How the Israeli resettlement of Gaza went from being a fringe view to a real possibility

How the Israeli resettlement of Gaza went from being a fringe view to a real possibility
  • Rightwing Israeli politicians, including cabinet ministers, are joining forces with settler groups hoping to reoccupy enclave
  • The resettlement of Gaza and ‘voluntary’ removal of Palestinians would likely deal a killer blow to the two-state solution

LONDON: It is easy to miss the gated entrance to the Gush Katif Museum, squeezed between two low-rise apartment blocks on an unremarkable side street in Jerusalem.

Since it opened in 2008, the museum has been a quiet, reflective backwater, a place of pilgrimage for a group of people who call themselves “the uprooted” — the survivors of a curious and, for them, traumatic chapter in the story of Israel and the Palestinians.

But since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas-led militants, and the subsequent devastating retribution visited upon Gaza by the Israeli army, the museum suddenly finds itself rather more than a mere footnote to history.




Israeli armor advances against Egyptian troops at the start of the Six-Day War June 5, 1967 near Rafah, Gaza Strip. Thirty-eight years later, the Israeli army pulled out of Gaza under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan. (AFP/Getty Images/File)

Instead, it has become the spiritual home of an increasingly vocal rightwing movement in Israel calling not only for the reoccupation of Gaza by Israel, but also for the ethnic cleansing of all Arabs from the territory.

Situated barely 1.5 km west of Jerusalem’s Old City, the museum was established in August 2008 to commemorate the 17 Israeli settlements that sprang up in Gaza in the wake of the 1967 Six-Day War.

From 1970 onward the agricultural settlements, inhabited mainly by orthodox Jews and known collectively as Gush Katif, occupied a narrow coastal strip running north from the Egyptian border for about 12 km.




In this combination of images taken from 2001 to 2004, Israeli children (top photos) are seen at play in the  Netzarim settlement in Gush Katif near the Gaza Strip. At the bottom are Palestinians living as refugees in their own homeland. As Palestinians escalated their resistance, the Israeli government decided to pull out from Gaza, forcibly uprooting Jewish settlers that it had previously encouraged to build homes on Palestinian lands. (AFP/File)

For 35 years the communities of Gush Katif, insulated from their Palestinian neighbors by a system of roads closed to Arab drivers and patrolled by a dedicated unit of the Israeli army, put down deep roots and thrived. They built homes, schools, synagogues and greenhouses on land they believed would belong to Israel forever.

But then it all came crashing down.

In what some in Israel still describe as a betrayal, and even a crime, in 2003 Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, announced his “disengagement” plan — a unilateral decision, taken in the face of stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to withdraw all Israeli settlements from Gaza.




In this picture taken on May 4, 2001, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon views the wreckage of a car that exploded at Rafah Yam in the Gush Katif group of Jewish settlements, amid Palestinian resistance. Sharon subsequently ordered an Israeli disengagement from Gaza, to the dismay of settlers who came to the captured Palestinian territory on government invitation. (AFP)

In a televised speech on Aug. 15, 2005, Sharon described the withdrawal as “the most difficult and painful step of all … very difficult for me personally.”

The decision had not been taken lightly, he said, “but the changing reality in the country, in the region, and the world, required of me a reassessment and change of positions.”

Israel, he added, “cannot hold on to Gaza forever.”

Without doubt, the “disengagement” was traumatic for the Jews of Gush Katif, more than 8,000 of whom lost their homes. For some, it was a second displacement, having been resettled there at the invitation of the Israeli government after Israel handed over the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982.




Tens of thousands of Israeli settlers and right-wing supporters march at a Gaza beach on April 27, 2005, in protest against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disengagement plan. (AFP/File)

Contemporary newsreels playing at the Gush Katif Museum capture the traumatic forced evacuations that took place between Aug. 15 and 22 in 2005. Film of the final day of the evacuation shows women and children, crying and screaming, being dragged away from their homes by Israeli soldiers and police officers.

At one of the settlement’s synagogues, men, singing prayers and weeping, gather for the last time. Even as the settlements are being abandoned, diggers and bulldozers move in to destroy all the homes.

“I don’t think it’s fully appreciated that the religious right in Israel have their own calendar, and that there are traumatic events marked in that calendar,” said Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney specializing in Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and the founder of the NGO Terrestrial Jerusalem.

“Trauma number one came in 1967, when Moshe Dayan (then Israel’s defense minister) did not forcefully impose Israeli sovereignty over the Temple Mount, which they consider to be Israel’s biggest blunder.




In this file photo, Israeli troops observe the old city of Jerusalem, home to the Dome of the Rock (C) in the Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, Islam's third holiest site, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, the holiest site of Judaism, prior to their attack June 1967. (AFP)

“But the second-largest trauma for the religious right is the eviction from Gush Katif, a seminal, traumatic event for them.

“There is a yearning for returning now that that has been spoken about for years, but always by people who were perceived as on the fringe. Now, there are people in government who are also talking about it.”

GAZA STRIPTIMELINE

• Belongs to Ottoman Empire from 16th to 20th century.

• Taken by British troops in 1917 during the Second World War.

• British rule ends in 1918.

• Under Egypt’s military rule in 1950s and 1960s.

* Captured by Israel in 1967 Middle East war.

• Palestinians gain limited control under 1993 peace accord.

• Israel evacuates troops and settlers in August 2005.

• In 2006, Hamas scores victory in Palestinian parliamentary vote.

• In 2007 Hamas ejects political rivals and becomes sole ruler.

And not just talking about it. Rightwing politicians, including some in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, are joining forces with settler groups and calling for the lost homes of Gush Katif, and many more besides, to be rebuilt.

On Sunday Jan. 28, no fewer than a dozen government ministers and 15 members of the Israeli parliament joined 3,000 people at the Jerusalem International Convention Center for a “Resettle Gaza Conference,” a boisterous, noisy affair with a distinctly celebratory atmosphere.




Jewish settlers gather at a convention in Jerusalem on January 28, 2024, calling for Israel to rebuild settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. (REUTERS)0

Among the high-profile conference-goers was Netanyahu’s security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the darling of Israel’s religious right.

Last year Ben-Gvir led ultranationalist settlers on a series of provocative marches to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which many Jewish religious extremists would like to see destroyed to make way for the construction of a third Jewish temple, replacing the two that the Jewish bible says were destroyed in antiquity.

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It was these marches, and an escalation in Israeli settler activities, that were cited by Hamas as the final provocation that triggered the Oct. 7 assault on Israel — an operation it named Al-Aqsa Flood.

Ben-Gvir has shown no remorse for his provocations. Indeed, on New Year’s Day he declared “we must promote a solution to encourage the migration of Gaza residents … a correct, just, moral, and humane solution.”

He added: “Make no mistake about it, we have partners around the world that can help, there are statesmen around the world to whom we can promote this idea.

“Encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza will allow us to bring the residents of Gush Katif back home.”




Israeli ministers, including national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, participated in a Resettle Gaza Conference in Jerusalem. (AFP)

His boss, Netanyahu, appears to share his sentiments.

In the face of growing international disquiet at Israel’s disproportionate military response in Gaza since Oct. 7, the man at the helm of the most rightwing government in Israel’s history, politically beholden to settler groups, has repeatedly rejected calls from allies, including the US, to pave the way for the long-awaited two-state solution.

Netanyahu’s position was made clear in a statement issued by his office on Jan. 21, the day after US President Joe Biden once again publicly urged him to seek peace by agreeing to the principle of Palestinian statehood.

“In his conversation with President Biden,” it read, “Prime Minister Netanyahu reiterated his policy that after Hamas is destroyed Israel must retain security control over Gaza to ensure that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel, a requirement that contradicts the demand for Palestinian sovereignty.”




US President Joe Biden, left, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18, 2023, to discuss the the war between Israel and Hamas. (Pool Photo via AP, File)

A return to Gush Katif, now being openly proposed by some in Netanyahu’s cabinet, would be compatible with this bleak vision of the future — but some want to go much further.

In a poll carried out in Israel in December, 68 percent of Israelis said they supported the idea of “voluntary migration” for the Arab citizens of Palestine. And on Dec. 25, the day after the poll results were published, Netanyahu told a meeting of his Likud Knesset faction that his government was already working on how to achieve this.

“Our problem is finding countries that are ready to absorb them, and we are working on it,” the Jewish Press reported Netanyahu as saying.

The idea is also gaining traction among the Jewish lobby overseas.

On Jan. 2, a columnist for the Jewish Press, the largest independent weekly Jewish newspaper in the US, a self-proclaimed “tireless advocate on behalf of the State of Israel,” offered a sinister take on the calls for “voluntary migration.”

“It stands to reason that rather than engage in futile efforts to persuade the countries of the world to open their gates to the most militant Islamist population on the planet, Israel should invest efforts in making life in Gaza unbearable,” wrote David Israel in a deeply disturbing column.




Palestinian man uses a wheelchair to transport bags of flour distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on January 29, 2024. If rightwing Israelis have their way, Palestinians should be sent to a country where they are welcomed. (REUTERS/File Photo)

He added: “The idea of tempting the Gaza Arabs onto large cruise ships that would take them to nicer places may be a romantic delusion, but the flight of thousands of starved individuals from a disease-ridden and ever-shrinking livable space would eventually bring down the Egyptian government’s barred gates.”

In Israel, not everyone is comfortable with the talk of resettling Gaza, a prospect that has alarmed even politically center-right newspaper The Jerusalem Post. In an editorial on Jan. 30, it labelled the Resettle Gaza Conference “disturbing” and condemned the calls to resettle Gaza as “divisive.”

But, given the support of a growing number of ministers and others, the paper concluded, “we can no longer say the resettlement of Gaza is a fringe idea that has no teeth or staying power.”




Palestinians shop in an open-air market near the ruins of houses and buildings destroyed in Israeli strikes during the conflict in Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip on November 30, 2023. Rightwing Israelis are toying with the idea of letting Palestinians leave Gaza "voluntarily" and migrate to other countries. (REUTERS/File Photo)

Omer Bartov, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in Providence, Rhode Island, cautions against the use of euphemisms in the current situation.

“When speaking of a reoccupation of Gaza and the ‘voluntary’ removal of Palestinians, Ben-Gvir and followers are in fact speaking about the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, and then its settlement by Jews,” he said.

“They are quite open about that. There is nothing voluntary about this.”

If this came about, he said, “this would first of all mean that the entire IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) operation in Gaza will be seen as one of forcible removal of population, which is a war crime and a crime against humanity under international humanitarian law.”

It might also “be a breach of the Genocide Convention, as it could be presented as the intentional destruction of the part of the Palestinian people living in Gaza. This would put Israel directly in the sights of the International Court of Justice.”




Displaced Palestinians flee from Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on January 30, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

Bartov is, however, doubtful that “the radicals in the Israeli cabinet will manage to push this through. I don’t think there will be ethnic cleansing, but I do anticipate a major political crisis in Israel.

“This can be channeled in a positive direction only through massive pressure by the US and its allies, especially the UK, France and Germany, and then a regional agreement with Arab states, not least Saudi Arabia, to normalize relations with Israel on condition of the creation of an independent, possibly demilitarized, Palestinian state,” he said.

In the Gush Katif museum, among the artefacts on display, pride of place goes to a menorah, the traditional candelabra traditionally lit on the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. It was saved from the synagogue of Netzarim, the last of the Gaza settlements to be evacuated, and growing numbers in Israel would like to see it returned to what they believe is its rightful place.




More than 20,000 Peace Now demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv on October 1, 1996, calling for a continuation of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Twenty-seven years after, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still in office, leading right-wing extremists in posing an obstacle to peace. (AFP/File)

In a film shown at the museum, Rivka Goldschmidt, one of the “Uprooted” from Gush Katif, speaks of her hopes for the future.

“It could be that our children will be able to return to Gush Katif and that will be a great comfort,” she says.

“I don’t know if it will happen, or when it will happen, but in the back of my mind that is an aspiration because there was something there that was great and tremendous, built by honest people.”

Gush Katif, she adds, “was vacated for no reason and it could be that our children, maybe our grandchildren, will return there one day.”

If Netanyahu and the rightwing ministers in his cabinet get their way, that day could be sooner than anyone could have predicted.

And if that happens, the prospects for a two-state solution and the peace for which so many Palestinians and Israelis have prayed for so long will likely have been dashed for generations to come.

 


Arab League chief praises UN Special Rapporteur Albanese for stand on Palestine

Arab League chief praises UN Special Rapporteur Albanese for stand on Palestine
Updated 22 April 2024
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Arab League chief praises UN Special Rapporteur Albanese for stand on Palestine

Arab League chief praises UN Special Rapporteur Albanese for stand on Palestine
  • Aboul Gheit met Albanese at the headquarters of the Arab League General Secretariat in Cairo
  • Discussion centered on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, given continued Israeli violations against the civilian population

CAIRO: Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit and UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese discussed the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip on Monday.

Aboul Gheit met Albanese at the headquarters of the Arab League General Secretariat in Cairo.

The discussion centered on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, given continued Israeli violations against the civilian population over the past several months.

Albanese is the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Gamal Roshdy, the secretary-general’s spokesperson, conveyed Aboul Gheit’s commendation for the special rapporteur’s work and her courageous stance as a global conscience amid the “silence and indifference of many nations toward the atrocities committed by the occupying forces, which constitute acts of genocide.”

Roshdy quoted Aboul Gheit as affirming during the meeting that Israeli crimes could not be justified as mistakes or collateral damage from military operations.

“They are deliberate acts aimed at collectively punishing the population and depriving Palestinians of their fundamental right to live on their land.”

Aboul Gheit expressed his solidarity with Albanese in the face of incitement campaigns and accusations of antisemitism against her.

He said that the motives behind these campaigns were clear, highlighting Israel’s efforts to silence any independent voices that exposed the reality of the civilian massacre unfolding in the Gaza Strip. 

He said that Israel engaged in character assassination against individuals who revealed its falsehoods and deception to global public opinion.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Albanese discussed the condition of human rights and Israeli practices in the occupied Palestinian territories on Sunday.

Shoukry received Albanese in Cairo, where they called for an immediate end to Israeli attacks on Gaza in compliance with international laws and demanded the safe delivery of humanitarian aid.


Drone attack targeted US forces in Iraq, US official says

Drone attack targeted US forces in Iraq, US official says
Updated 22 April 2024
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Drone attack targeted US forces in Iraq, US official says

Drone attack targeted US forces in Iraq, US official says

BAGHDAD: US forces stationed at Iraq’s Ain Al-Asad air base were targeted in an armed drone attack that caused no damage or casualties, a US official said, in the second attack on US troops in the region in less than 24 hours.
The attacks follow a near-three month pause in the targeting of US forces in Iraq and Syria after months of near-daily rocket and drone strikes by Iran-backed Shiite Muslim armed factions over US backing of Israel’s Gaza campaign.


Israel fails to provide evidence for allegations against UNRWA staff so far, Colonna report finds

Israel fails to provide evidence for allegations against UNRWA staff so far, Colonna report finds
Updated 22 April 2024
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Israel fails to provide evidence for allegations against UNRWA staff so far, Colonna report finds

Israel fails to provide evidence for allegations against UNRWA staff so far, Colonna report finds
  • The report said Israel had yet to provide evidence for its claim that a significant number of UNRWA staff were members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad

LONDON: Israel has not provided evidence to support claims that staff members of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, participated in the Oct. 7 attacks, an independent review led by the former French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna revealed.

The Colonna review, drafted with the assistance of three Nordic research institutes, underscores the lack of substantiation for broader allegations made by Israel in March, accusing numerous UNRWA employees of affiliating with Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

Major donors cut their funding to the agency in January, which is the primary source of humanitarian aid not only to Gaza but also to Palestinian refugees throughout the region, following Israel’s allegations.

This was despite the critical circumstances of Gaza’s 2.3 million people, the majority of whom have been displaced by Israel’s war since Oct. 7 and are struggling to access water, food, shelter, or medical care.

The report found that UNRWA has consistently supplied employee lists to Israel for vetting and that “the Israeli government has not informed Unrwa of any concerns relating to any Unrwa staff based on these staff lists since 2011.”

A more detailed assessment was sent to the UN by the three Nordic research bodies — the Swedish-based Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, the Norwegian Chr Michelsen Institute, and the Danish Institute for Human Rights.

“Israeli authorities have to date not provided any supporting evidence nor responded to letters from Unrwa in March, and again in April, requesting the names and supporting evidence that would enable Unrwa to open an investigation,” the report stated.

The Colonna report deemed UNRWA indispensable for providing essential humanitarian aid and services, the Guardian reported.

“In the absence of a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians, Unrwa remains pivotal in providing life-saving humanitarian aid and essential social services, particularly in health and education, to Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank,” it said.

“As such, Unrwa is irreplaceable and indispensable to Palestinians’ human and economic development. In addition, many view Unrwa as a humanitarian lifeline.”

The Colonna review proposes several enhancements to neutrality safeguards for UNRWA’s staff of over 32,000, including expanding the internal oversight service, increasing in-person training, and boosting support from donor countries. However, it acknowledges that UNRWA’s current measures are already more stringent than those of many similar organizations.

“The review revealed that Unrwa has established a significant number of mechanisms and procedures to ensure compliance with the humanitarian principles, with emphasis on the principle of neutrality and that it possesses a more developed approach to neutrality than other similar UN or NGO entities,” it said

One common criticism from Israel is that UNRWA schools throughout the region use Palestinian Authority textbooks containing antisemitic content, the Guardian reported. However, the technical report by the Nordic institutions found little evidence to support these allegations.

“Three international assessments of PA textbooks in recent years have provided a nuanced picture,” the report said. “Two identified presence of bias and antagonistic content, but did not provide evidence of antisemitic content. The third assessment, by the (German-based) Georg Eckert Institute, studied 156 PA textbooks and identified two examples that it found to display antisemitic motifs but noted that one of them had already been removed, the other has been altered.”

The recent resumption of funding by most donor nations, pending the Colonna report, reflects ongoing developments, while US financial support remains permanently banned due to the allegations.

A separate investigation by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services into the Oct. 7 attack continues, the Guardian reported.


Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over failure to prevent Oct. 7 attack

Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over failure to prevent Oct. 7 attack
Updated 22 April 2024
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Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over failure to prevent Oct. 7 attack

Israeli military intelligence chief resigns over failure to prevent Oct. 7 attack
  • Aharon Haliva becomes the first senior Israeli figure to step down over Hamas’ attack
  • Hamas fighters rampaged through Israeli territories unchallenged, killing 1,200 on Oct. 7

TEL AVIV: The head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate resigned on Monday over the failures surrounding Hamas’ unprecedented Oct. 7 attack, the military said, becoming the first senior figure to step down over his role in the deadliest assault in Israel’s history.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva’s resignation sets the stage for what’s expected to be more fallout from Israel’s top security brass over Hamas’ attack, when militants blasted through Israel’s border defenses, rampaged through Israeli communities unchallenged for hours and killed 1,200 people, most civilians, while taking roughly 250 hostages into Gaza. That attack set off the war against Hamas in Gaza, now in its seventh month.

The military said in a statement that Haliva had asked to end his service “following his leadership responsibility.” Shortly after the war, Haliva had publicly said that he shouldered blame for not preventing the assault at the head of the military department responsible for providing the government and the military with intelligence warnings and daily alerts.

The military said in the statement that the military chief of staff accepted Haliva’s request to resign and thanked him for his service.

Haliva, as well as other military and security leaders, were widely expected to resign in response to the glaring failures that led up to Oct. 7 and those that made it such a devastating attack.

But the timing of the resignations is unclear because Israel is still fighting Hamas in Gaza and battling the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the north. Tensions with Iran are also at a high following attacks between the two enemies.

While Haliva and others have accepted blame for failing to stop the attack, others have stopped short, most notably Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said he will answer tough questions about his role but has not outright acknowledged any responsibility for allowing the attack to unfold.


Iran says nuclear weapons have no place in its nuclear doctrine

Iran says nuclear weapons have no place in its nuclear doctrine
Updated 22 April 2024
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Iran says nuclear weapons have no place in its nuclear doctrine

Iran says nuclear weapons have no place in its nuclear doctrine
  • Tehran’s nuclear program banned the development of nuclear weapons in a fatwa

DUBAI: Nuclear weapons have no place in Iran’s nuclear doctrine, the country’s foreign ministry said on Monday, days after a Revolutionary Guards commander warned that Tehran might change its nuclear policy if pressured by Israeli threats.
“Iran has repeatedly said its nuclear program only serves peaceful purposes. Nuclear weapons have no place in our nuclear doctrine,” ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said during a press conference in Tehran.
Following a spike in tensions with Israel, the Guards commander in charge of nuclear security Ahmad Haghtalab said last week that Israeli threats could push Tehran to “review its nuclear doctrine and deviate from its previous considerations.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last say on Tehran’s nuclear program, banned the development of nuclear weapons in a fatwa, or religious decree, in the early 2000s.