The Israeli soldiers stand rifles in hand, arm over shoulder, speaking to the camera. Behind them is the shell of a Gazan building.
“We are here adding light after the black sabbath that the people of Israel had,” one of the men says in the video, circulating on Telegram. “We are occupying, deporting, and settling. Occupying, deporting, and settling. Did you hear that Bibi? Occupying, deporting, and settling.”
As Israel’s war against Hamas enters its fourth month, the Israeli government has said little of substance, at least in any official way, on its plans for post-war Gaza.
Hamas seized control of the territory – home to about 2.2 million Palestinians – from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, two years after Israel unilaterally withdrew all its troops and about 8,000 Jewish settlers. Who governs it after Israel’s war against Hamas concludes is an open question.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the idea of establishing Jewish settlements, but has said only that neither Hamas nor the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority should govern the territory, and that Israel will keep “full security control.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, has released his own proposal, saying that there should be “no Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip,” but light on detail about what governance there would look like.
Into that void has stepped a group – once fringe, but now in the governing coalition –that hopes for full Israeli control, to resettle Gaza and even expel Palestinians. And its ideas are permeating mainstream debate.
“We must promote a solution to encourage the emigration of the residents of Gaza,” far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said on January 1.
Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also holds a position in the Defense Ministry, says that Israel “will rule there. And in order to rule there securely for a long time, we must have a civilian presence.”
The United States’ top diplomat is concerned enough that he has publicly rebuked those plans.
“These statements are irresponsible, they’re inflammatory, and they only make it harder to secure a future of Palestinian-led Gaza with Hamas no longer in control, and with terrorist groups no longer able to threaten Israel’s security,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a recent trip to Qatar.
Polling in Israel on the question of re-establishing settlements varies widely, reflecting subtleties in how the question is asked, and the fact that public opinion in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attack is wildly in flux, says Dahlia Scheindlin, a polling expert, journalist, and contributor to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“The general range goes from about 25% who want to re-establish permanent communities, Jewish Israeli communities in Gaza, to somewhere in the 40% range,” she told CNN of several polls conducted in November and December. “That is not a small portion of Israeli society.”
There is also an established track record in Israel of politicians pushing seemingly extremist ideas into mainstream conversation, and even into law. Netanyahu last year supported an effort started by a right-wing minister from his own Likud party to push through a law limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to scrutinize legislation, despite months of protests that roiled the nation. That proposal never had majority support, but the Knesset nonetheless passed it into law. The Supreme Court struck down the proposal earlier this month, saying it would deal a “severe and unprecedented blow to the core characteristics of the State of Israel as a democratic state.”
“Ideas that often seem very extreme at a certain phase in Israel’s history can over time become increasingly normalized very incrementally – sometimes a little bit below the radar, not exactly hidden, but not exactly advertised,” Scheindlin said of Israeli policymaking.
Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer who has served as an adviser to the Palestinian Authority, gives little credence to Netanyahu’s professed opposition to re-establishing settlements in Gaza.
“As much as Netanyahu may say that he’s not going to do it, he will ultimately,” she told CNN. “Because we as Palestinians have long learned that they end up finding some sort of excuse – you know, the coalition needs to stay together, whatever. And Palestinians always pay the price for it.”
People are ‘waking up’
Far from a new idea, the desire to re-settle Gaza comes from decades of frustration with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2004 decision to dismantle 21 Israel settlements in Gaza – known as Gush Katif – and expel their 8,000 Jewish residents, a process which was completed in 2005.
Settler activists like Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, sense an opportunity.
“For people like myself who are on the so-called Israeli right, who have been warning about this situation for years, who protested the 2005 disengagement, nothing has changed,” Fleisher told CNN. “October 7 was just proof for what we’ve been saying all along.”
As a protester, in 2005, Fleisher was among those ejected from Gaza by the Israeli government. With public opinion in flux, he hopes that his movement’s moment has come.
“People are waking up – they’re trying to open their minds,” he said of fellow Israelis, reevaluating their politics in the wake of October 7.
If Palestinians in Gaza are “post-Jihad, pro-Israel, and want to live that good life in that beautiful soil, there should be an opportunity for that,” he said. “Anti-Israel, pro-jihad Arabs have got to leave. And they’re going to have to find a different place to go. It might be Turkey, and it might be Jordan, and it might be South America,” he said. “If they can’t muster in their heart to live in or next to the Jewish state, we can’t have them.”
The Norwegian Refugee Council in December warned that “any attempts by Israel to deport and permanently displace Palestinians within and from Gaza would constitute a serious breach of international law and an atrocity crime.”
Since October 7, about 85 percent of Gaza’s population, or some 1.9 million people, have been displaced from their homes, according to the United Nations – many of them moved multiple times, fleeing airstrikes and heeding Israeli warnings of military attacks, and largely squeezed into a small, southwestern corner of the territory.
Israel was last week accused of genocide in Gaza by South Africa, whose lawyers argued at the International Court of Justice in The Hague that Israel’s military campaign was intended to “bring about the destruction” of its Palestinian population, and that comments made by Israeli leaders signalled their “genocidal intent.” Israel strenuously denied the accusation and said that the charge was “a concerted and cynical effort to pervert the meaning of the term ‘genocide’ itself.”
At the Gush Katif museum in Jerusalem, former settlers are printing T-shirts in bright orange. That color was adopted in 2004 and 2005 by the movement protesting Israel’s disengagement from Gaza. At the time, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers pulled settlers from settlement synagogues. Days later, Palestinian forces razed the buildings to the ground.
“Home, returning to Gush Katif,” the slogan on the T-shirts reads.
The movement to re-establish Gush Katif, has found a place, too, among some of the many (IDF) soldiers posting from Gaza on social media.
A photograph from a ruined Gaza street shows two soldiers holding an Israeli flag, altered to include an orange stripe and the words, in Hebrew: “Coming home!”
Another photograph shows soldiers with an orange banner that reads: “Only settlement would be considered victory!”
When the megastar Israeli singer Hanan Ben Ari serenaded Israeli troops in October ahead of their deployment, he sang:
Returning to Gush Katif
Playing beach volleyball
Establishing Nova Beach on the Gaza coast
The nation of Israel lives!
Those advocating for renewed Israeli settlements often frame their arguments in humanitarian terms, arguing that Palestinians would have a better life elsewhere.
“This is a correct, just, moral and humane solution,” said Ben Gvir, who has previously been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism.
Gila Gamliel, Israel’s intelligence minister and a member of Likud, suggested in November that Israel “promote the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the Strip.”
Fleisher, too, told CNN: “I would want to leave if I was in a war zone with children.”
Between 68% and 81% of buildings in northern Gaza have been damaged by Israel’s war in Gaza, according to analysis of satellite imagery up to January 5 by researchers at Oregon State University and the City University of New York. In all of Gaza, the figure is between 45% and 56%.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has made clear his government’s “complete rejection of the displacement of any Palestinian citizen.”
However, the vision of voluntary emigration could “become true by default,” Omer Bartov, an Israeli-born professor of holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University, told CNN.
“Can the population now return to northern Gaza, which has largely been destroyed?”
“As a result of this, there is an opening for those ministers, media people, and so forth on the Israeli right to say, ‘Well the most humanitarian solution is to remove that population’ — or to encourage, as they say — to move out of Gaza. If that happens, then this entire scenario that I’m talking about will be seen as ethnic cleansing.”
Buttu, who said she has little doubt about the determination of some in Israel to re-settle Gaza based on their settlement efforts in the West Bank, voiced a similar concern.
Israel has “created the conditions whereby Gaza is no longer liveable,” she said. “Now they’re just simply repacking it as some sort of humanitarian gift, or humanitarian solution, when really what it is, is aiding Israel and ethnically cleansing Gaza of Palestinians.”
Netanyahu has rejected the idea of new settlements as “unrealistic,” saying in an English-language statement that “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”
In October, the Israeli government admitted that a leaked intelligence document proposing the relocation of millions of Palestinian Gazans to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula was genuine, but downplayed its significance as “a preliminary paper, like dozens of such papers prepared by all political and security echelons.”
Nonetheless, the fact the re-settlement movement is now being openly discussed in Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, as it was during a committee hearing earlier this month, is a step-change in the debate. And despite international opprobrium, its far-right proponents are not holding back.
“We first need to occupy, to annex, to destroy all the houses there, build neighborhoods there,” Tzvi Sukkot, a member of Knesset from Smotrich’s Religious Zionism said during the committee hearing.
The only image that will convince Israel’s enemy of its defeat, said Limor Son Har Melech from Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, to applause, is “the settlement, and Jewish children walking in its streets.”