Rebuilding Gush Katif: The scheme to return Jewish settlers to Gaza

William Van Wagenen, The Cradle, December 13, 2023 —

Once viewed as a fringe group, Israel’s messianic settler movement holds the reins of power today. Their plans for the ethnic cleansing and resettlement of Gaza needed only two things: a big war and an extremist government.

Almost three weeks into Israel’s bloody ground invasion of Gaza, an Israeli soldier filmed a video from inside the bombed and besieged enclave exclaiming, “We will complete the mission we have been assigned. Conquer, expel and settle. You hear that, Bibi?”

Two months into Tel Aviv’s aerial assault of Gaza, its end goals are still unclear. CNN has revealed that Israel’s “original plan” for the war was to “level Gaza.” And Israeli minister Ron Dermer proposed a plan to “thin out” the Gaza population by forcing civilians to flee to Egypt by land, or to other parts of Africa and Europe by boat, because the “sea is open to them.”

What is certain is that this is like no other Israeli bombing spree on Gaza. In past campaigns, the Israelis sought out international mediators “from the first day” to broker a ceasefire within days or weeks.

This time, however, the Israelis and their American supporters most decidedly do not want a ceasefire. While their end goals for Gaza have shifted in this conflict, it is equally important to note that Tel Aviv’s plans for that future may be entirely different from Washington’s. Simply, Israel has never had a government as right-wing as the current one cobbled together by its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; a cabinet heaving with religious fundamentalists and messianic fervor.

Plans to ‘reclaim’ Gaza 

The roots of Israel’s current campaign to conquer Gaza and ethnically cleanse its 2.3 million Palestinian inhabitants trace back almost two decades, originating with the evacuation of the Gush Katif settlement bloc in 2005.

This move, orchestrated by then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, aimed at continued Jewish settlement and military occupation in the occupied West Bank, but was deemed treacherous by Israel’s uber right-wing, religious settler movement.

It was Ariel Sharon, “the father of settlements,” who designed the Gaza disengagement to ensure continued Jewish settlement and military occupation of the West Bank, but the religious settler movement viewed him as a traitor for giving up “Jewish land,” just as they viewed former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor for signing the Oslo Accords to eventually establish a Palestinian state.

Rabin was murdered by Jewish extremist Yigal Amir in 1995, in an act publicly encouraged by a young but prominent religious settler activist, Itamar Ben Gvir.

Another young religious settler, Bezalel Smotrich, was arrested for opposing Sharon’s disengagement policy. To stop Gaza disengagement, Smotrich wanted to blow up cars on the Ayalon highway, at rush hour, using 700 liters of gasoline.

Both men are today allies and prominent ideologues in Netanyahu’s extremist coalition government.

Over the next 18 years, the Likud Party and the religious settler movement, led by figures such as Ben Gvir and Smotrich, harbored dreams of reconquering Gaza to reconstruct Gush Katif. This undertaking would entail completing the expulsion initiated by Zionist militias in 1948, as noted by Israeli historian Benny Morris, by forcing Gazans into exile and preventing their return.

In 2010, then Prime Minister Netanyahu and Knesset member (MK) Gila Gamliel, both Likud members, proposed to the late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak the settlement of Palestinians in the Sinai peninsula as part of a peace deal-related land swap.

After insisting, “I’m not even willing to listen to those kinds of proposals,” Mubarak was toppled in a US-orchestrated color revolution, part of the region-wide ‘Arab Spring,’ as it was known.

Netanyahu proposed a similar deal to Mubarak’s successor Mohammad Morsi in 2012, and to Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in 2014, but these yielded the same outcomes.

In 2014, during Israel’s brutal 51-day assault on Gaza, Netanyahu sought US intervention with Sisi to propose settling Palestinians in Sinai, but got nowhere. Over 2,300 civilians were killed in that military operation – yet another of Israel’s “mowing the grass” campaigns to inflict setbacks for the resistance, without making any meaningful gains against Hamas.

The plan takes shape

By June 2018, reports surfaced of a new Israeli army plan to “create a considerable change in the situation if it is required to launch a major campaign in Gaza.” This would involve moving beyond temporary bombardment to offensive missions involving elite units who “will enter Gaza and dissect it in two, and even occupy significant parts of it.”

Meanwhile, in 2019, fundamentalist settlers like Ben Gvir continued to express a fervent desire to level Gaza and return to rebuild Gush Katif.

Ahead of the 2022 Knesset elections, three extreme right-wing political parties united to form the Religious Zionism Coalition. These included the Religious Zionism party, headed by Smotrich, the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, headed by Ben Gvir, and Noam, a small ultra-orthodox party.

In July 2022, Religious Zionist candidate Arnon Segal wrote during his campaign announcement: “It is time to begin to plan a return to Gush Katif.”

“Yes,” he wrote, “to physically return and rebuild it.”

That September, as the elections drew closer, i24 News, an outlet close to Netanyahu, addressed the issue of Gush Katif, calling it a “lingering wound,” one still open and fresh for Israelis.

“It’s a trauma,” an Israeli named Hillel quoted by i24 News said. “The whole country was hurting.”

The ‘legality’ of the settlers’ return 

The effort to rebuild Gush Katif converged with a significant shift in the situation in Gaza when Netanyahu became prime minister for the sixth time after the December 2022 elections. Following a year out of power, Netanyahu formed a coalition between his Likud party and the Religious Zionism Coalition.

The deal with Netanyahu allowed Ben Gvir to become national security minister, while Smotrich was made both finance minister and a minister in Israel’s Defense Ministry, responsible for civil administration in the occupied West Bank.

Under their direction, the occupation state quickly stepped-up military raids against Palestinian resistance groups, accelerated Jewish settlement building, and issued calls for annexing the West Bank.

As violence intensified in March 2023, the Likud-Religious Zionism coalition quietly reversed a crucial aspect of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement. Sharon’s original withdrawal plan involved abandoning four small settlements in the northern West Bank due to security challenges.

However, the Knesset passed an amendment to the disengagement legislation on 21 March, which enabled Jewish settlers to return to these evacuated settlements and paved the way for their reconstruction.

Following the vote, MK Limor Son Har-Melech of the Jewish Power party stated: “We must not rest on our laurels or the euphoria of the moment.” We must also galvanize to “return home to the region of Gush Katif, which was abandoned [in 2005] in an act of terrible folly.”

Minister of National Missions Orit Strock of the Religious Zionism party made a similar call, telling Israel’s Channel 7: 

“I believe that, at the end of the day, the sin of the disengagement will be reversed.”

She suggested this would require going to war, adding that “Sadly, a return to the Gaza Strip will involve many casualties.” In response, the left-wing Peace Now NGO warned that:

“A messianic revolution is taking place. This government will inevitably destroy our country. They will also deepen the occupation, ignite the region, and establish a Jewish supremacist regime from the river to the sea.”

The Gazan Nakba 

In the aftermath of the Palestinian resistance operation of Al-Aqsa Flood on 7 October, a slew of propaganda and fake news created the public outrage needed to justify using overwhelming violence against not only Hamas, but all Gazans, and to implement plans to return to Gush Katif.

Public calls to commit genocide against Gazans became widespread among Israeli politicians, journalists and celebrities.

Israel seized the opportunity and initiated a massive bombing campaign on Gaza, accompanied by demands that Palestinians evacuate the northern half of the besieged enclave, a region home to 1.1 million people — about half of the territory’s population — within 24 hours.

Ex-Israeli Deputy Foreign minister and senior diplomat Danny Ayalon wrote on social media that Gazans must not only go to southern Gaza, but flee to Egypt:

“We don’t tell Gazans to go to the beaches or drown themselves … No God forbid … Go to the Sinai Desert … the international community will build them cities and give them food … Egypt ought to play ball with it.” 

Israeli demands that Palestinians flee to Egypt were accompanied by the release on 13 October of a report from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, led by Likud MK Gamliel.

Clearly prepared before the events of 7 October, the report recommended the occupation of Gaza and total transfer of its 2.3 million inhabitants to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while insisting they never be allowed to return.

Further, the plan stated the government should launch a public relations campaign directed toward the west that will promote the ethnic cleansing in a way that does not foster international hostility to Israel or damage its already tarnished reputation.

The mass deportation of the population from Gaza must be presented as a necessary humanitarian measure to receive international support, the report stated. Such a deportation could be justified if it will lead to “fewer casualties among the civilian population compared to the expected number of casualties if they remain.”

Israel’s horrific bombing campaign continued, ensuring that the number of casualties would indeed be massive.

On 27 October, after 7,028 Palestinians – including 2,913 children – had been killed, Israel launched its long-anticipated ground invasion of Gaza.

A week later, the rabbi of an Israeli army unit gave a rousing speech to the troops declaring: “This land is ours … the entire land, including Gaza, including Lebanon, including all of the promised land! … Gush Katif is tiny compared to what we will achieve with God’s help!”

As outlined in the 2018 plan by the military leadership, invading Israeli troops quickly cut the Gaza strip in two, while also invading from the north along the coast.

After planting an Israeli flag in the sand on Gaza’s beach, one Israeli commander told his troops: “We returned, we were expelled from here almost 20 years ago … This is our land! And that is the victory, to return to our lands.”

As Israeli soldiers were celebrating in Gaza, MKs from the Likud party submitted a bill on 8 November to again amend the 2005 Disengagement Law – this time to “repeal the law that bars Jews from entering the Gaza Strip.”

Three days later, Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN, and Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy director of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, published an article in the Wall Street Journal advocating the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, while feigning humanitarian motivations, as outlined in the ministry of intelligence plan.

Sensing that his dream of ethnically cleansing Gaza and rebuilding Gush Katif on the corpses of dead Palestinian children was about to be realized, Bezalel Smotrich welcomed the proposal, stating that “this is the humanitarian solution.”

Former Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked also welcomed the move, but was less diplomatic, exclaiming on Israeli TV:

“After we turn Khan Yunis into a soccer field … we need to take advantage of the destruction [to tell] the countries that each of them should take a quota, it can be 20,000 or 50,000 … We need 2 million to leave. That’s the solution for Gaza.”

Faced with the monumental task of resistance against US-backed occupation forces, the onus is on Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance factions to thwart any progress made on Israel’s “messianic revolution” in Gaza.

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