For Israel's religious right, Gaza is a war of conquest
In the past week, comments from Israeli lawmakers have called into question whether Israel’s religious right, or even the entire government, views its war on Gaza not only as one of revenge but also of conquest.
As 2024 began, Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told reporters and members of his Jewish Power Party that the war presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza”.
He added: “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.”
Ben Gvir repeated this call, writing on the social media platform X that “the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the enclave to return home and live in security,” referencing the return of Israeli settlers to Gaza, who were evacuated in 2005.
"We're seeing that the notion of forcing Palestinians out…is slowly becoming, or has already become a policy platform that Israel is pushing on from the highest levels"
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich similarly echoed Ben Gvir’s remarks during his party’s faction meeting on 1 January, declaring the “correct solution” in Gaza is “to encourage the voluntary migration of Gaza’s residents to countries that will agree to take in the refugees”. To members of his Religious Zionism Party, Smotrich predicted that “Israel will permanently control the territory of the Gaza Strip”.
Smotrich had also expressed this sentiment a day before in an interview with Israeli Army Radio. “What needs to be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage emigration,” Smotrich said. “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not 2 million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after will be totally different.”
During the Caucus to Strengthen the Awareness of Israeli Victory at Israel’s parliament last week this hard-lined notion to not only pummel Gaza but conquer it resonated throughout the session.
"At least in the northern Gaza Strip we first have to conquer, annex, destroy all the houses, build neighbourhoods,” Zvi Succot, a member of Israel’s Knesset belonging to the Religious Zionist Party, said. "This image, and this is the most important thing, of the destroyed Gaza, of Palestine Square that will become Israeli Heroism Square.”
Additionally, caucus co-chairman Ohad Tal announced, "The goal of the war must be full control over the Gaza Strip. Gaza was the State of Israel; it must return to being the territory of the State of Israel".
In response to right-wing lawmakers’ recent remarks, Eyal Lurie-Pardes, Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The New Arab, “In their view, there is no way to differentiate between a victorious retribution for what happened on October 7 and the resettlement of Gaza. They view that an Israeli victory is an actual civil presence in the territory”.
Despite Israel’s main ally, the United States, condemning these Israeli politicians’ inflammatory rhetoric, the post-war idea of emptying Gaza of its Palestinian inhabitants and repopulating the Strip with Jewish settlers continues to gain momentum.
“We're seeing that the notion of forcing Palestinians out…is slowly becoming, or has already become a policy platform that Israel is pushing on from the highest levels,” Mairav Zonszein, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, told The New Arab.
In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud Party faction meeting he is working on moving Palestinians from Gaza to other countries.
“Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it,” Netanyahu said.
Once a fringe pipe dream of Israel’s radical right, the war has renewed calls for Israelis to return to the Gaza Strip. Israel occupied Gaza in 1967 during the Six-Day War and established the first settlement in 1970. In 2005, Israel evacuated around 9,000 Israelis through the state’s Disengagement Law passed that same year.
"That's [Israel's] whole point when they set about to flatten Gaza. To create conditions so that people can't have a life inside of the Gaza Strip"
Now, Israeli soldiers wave Gush Katif (the bloc of settlements demolished during the 2005 disengagement) flags during ground operations in Gaza.
An Israeli Channel 12 poll in November found that 44% of Israelis favour resettling Gaza as the war’s outcome. Israeli Likud Party MKs even submitted a bill amending the Disengagement Law so Israelis can move freely in Gaza after the war. In March 2023, the Knesset annulled part of the law prohibiting Israeli settlement in the northern West Bank.
Zonszein doesn’t believe officials in Israel’s war cabinet are aiming to resettle Gaza, yet she noted Netanyahu hasn’t condemned those pumping that message into the public.
“That concept of we can only be safe if we're in control and we're occupying on some level is something that does run through the consensus of how Israel operates,” Zonszein said.
And while Netanyahu dismissed Israeli resettlement in Gaza, calling it “not a realistic goal" in December, Lurie-Pardes gave the caveat “that terminology should be a warning sign for us because unrealistic doesn't mean that they will actually prevent it from happening”.
'From the occupation of Gaza to the colonisation of Gaza'
For Lubnah Shomali, with the BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, describing Israel’s war on Gaza as a war of conquest implies Gaza isn’t occupied.
“Israel puts out the false information that Gaza is no longer occupied and it's under Hamas rule, but Israel continues to control the borders, the air, the land, the sea, what goes in and what goes out,” Shomali said.
“So, Gaza continues to be occupied, but what they are attempting to do is shift from the occupation of Gaza to the colonisation of Gaza.”
And this language touting colonisation isn’t just a trademark of the Israeli right, Dutch-Palestinian analyst Mouin Rabbani explained.
“There's a general misimpression that these kinds of sentiments are the preserve of the radical Israeli right. But historically speaking, they've been very much front and centre throughout mainstream Zionism and mainstream Israeli policy,” Rabbani said.
Rabbani explained how as early as the 19th century, displacing Palestinians was a key agenda item for Zionist thinkers and those involved in Israel’s creation.
In 1895, Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, said, “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country.” And Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion wrote in a 1937 letter to his son, “We must expel the Arabs and take their place”.
These words weren’t devoid of action. The Jewish Agency, responsible for purchasing Palestinian land for Jewish colonisation, created the Population Transfer Committee in 1937 with the goal of resettling Palestinians elsewhere.
"What they are attempting to do is shift from the occupation of Gaza to the colonisation of Gaza"
For Palestinians, history is thereby repeating itself. Shomali sees what Israel is doing in Gaza now as merely an extension of the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians preceding Israel’s establishment known as the Nakba or “catastrophe” in Arabic.
“It's reminiscent of what they did in 1948 with the Nakba,” Shomali said. “First they have to ethnically cleanse the land of the Palestinian population, and then they replace the Palestinian population with an Israeli coloniser population.”
Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2006 when Hamas gained power. This, along with Israel’s subsequent bombing campaigns, is what Shomali considers a classic textbook definition of a coercive environment.
That coercive environment has been dialled up now with Israel’s current war internally displacing nearly 85 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and wiping out homes, schools, and hospitals, Palestinian lawyer Diana Buttu noted.
“So virtually every aspect of life now, the only place that you can live is outside of Gaza, and that's [Israel’s] whole point when they set about to flatten Gaza,” Buttu said. “To create conditions so that people can't have a life inside of the Gaza Strip.”
And those conditions Israel created were never a secret when you listen to Israeli officials across the political spectrum, Rabbani noted, saying “Israel has been crystal clear about their intentions and objectives and one needs only to have an internet link, television, or radio to understand what they are doing in practice to bring this about”.
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist covering Palestine and Israel. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The National, and Gulf News.
Follow her on Twitter: @jess_buxbaum