Storrs, CT (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – The media rightly focused attention on a recent “packed gathering” of Israeli leaders and citizens discussing their support for returning Israeli settlers to the Gaza Strip, where they have not been since Israel’s disengagement in 2005.
More generally, for the past four months, some ministers in the Israeli government and their many supporters have viewed the brutal Hamas attack on Israel as an opportunity to advance the Greater Israel agenda of settlement expansion and Palestinian dispossession. Successful movements, like the Israeli right, kick into high gear for those unexpected moments when dramatic political and territorial change is suddenly possible.
From a Greater Israel perspective, there are at least four potential transformational aspects of this Israeli military barrage.
First, Israel is making Gaza uninhabitable. Almost 2 million Palestinians have been displaced from their homes. The cultural, educational, food, health care, and road systems – all essential for basic life – have been severely damaged. Perhaps 50 to 60% of structures in Gaza have been damaged and destroyed, including about 65,000 residential units. Thus, the damage already done could influence the post-war distribution of land and people even without further Israeli policy decisions.
Second, Israel could block or drag out Palestinian return to certain parts of Gaza. For example, in mid-December, an Israeli media outlet reported the IDF would maintain “a considerable military presence” in northern Gaza even after the intense warfighting ended. The report did also note that that could be coupled with a gradual process to allow back some Palestinians. On January 22, a Hamas attack killed tens of Israeli soldiers as they prepared to demolish buildings to clear a future buffer zone.
Third, Israel could press Palestinians to leave Gaza altogether and resettle elsewhere such as Egypt or in Arab Gulf countries. Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for “voluntary emigration.” On X (formerly twitter), National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir endorsed, “the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza.” Some have pointed to a leaked proposal from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence that would send Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has publicly distanced himself from the idea but privately indicated support in a Likud meeting: “Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it.” Relatedly, there was a report of Israeli government talks with the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a possible destination.
In a November 19 op-ed, the Israeli Minister of Intelligence, Gila Gamliel, openly advocated for Palestinian resettlement outside Gaza specifically in the context of this opportune moment, writing, ”Albert Einstein was quoted as saying: ‘In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.’”
Fourth, there are the Israelis mentioned earlier who are calling for re-establishing Israeli civilian settlements in Gaza. Ben-Gvir called the return of Jewish settlement in Gaza “an important thing.” A coalition of 11 Israeli organizations met to rally public support for the idea and lobby political leaders. In a mid-November poll, 44% of Israeli respondents supported Israeli settlement renewal in Gaza while 39% opposed.
Taken together, these steps would solidify Israeli control over additional territory and reduce the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. All these measures are fully consistent with the ultimate Greater Israel objective: there should only be one state, a Jewish one, on all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
And the current Israeli effort is not only in Gaza. Since October 7, the IDF and Israeli settlers have killed about 370 Palestinians in the West Bank, including in battles between the IDF and Palestinian militants. Israeli settlers continue to attack and force out Palestinian civilians, thus seizing more land for Israeli Jews. According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, since early October Israeli settlers drove out just over 1000 Palestinians, ending the presence of 16 Arab villages. In East Jerusalem, the pace of the Jerusalem Municipality demolishing Palestinian homes, already higher in 2023 than 2022, has moved even faster since October 7.
In other words, Israel is not just defending itself from the Hamas attack. It could be trying to re-make the status quo to favor further Israeli demographic and territorial growth at the expense of Palestinians. Yes, Israel’s motivations for its military policy include factors such as self-defense, restoring deterrence, “destroying” Hamas, the emotional desire for revenge, and trying to forcibly turn the Palestinian public in Gaza against Hamas. But all that said, an important element in some Israeli thinking is the continuing desire to re-shape the balance of land and people in support of the maximalist Greater Israel approach.
As noted already, Israel’s prime minister has publicly rejected some of these ideas, perhaps particularly in the face of the genocide case before the International Court of Justice. The United States government, too, has expressed strong opposition, but Israel can disregard US rhetoric as long as the flow of US arms and provision of diplomatic cover continue. At a minimum, though, the Greater Israel ideas will be better developed for when the next opportunity arises.
One danger is that because members of the Israeli government, with some public support, advocate these ideas, the changes could come to fruition in whole or in part despite supposed top-level Israeli and US opposition. We have already seen the concrete impact in the West Bank. Or, if parts of Gaza already are uninhabitable for months or years due to the Israeli bombardment, that could have a similar effect on demography and territorial control.
Moreover, governments do not always act uniformly, meaning factions could push non-consensual policies. Netanyahu might view some horse trading as the price for staying in power. A drawn-out war that facilitates fundamental territorial and demographic change also extends his term in office. With ongoing war, he avoids being held accountable either for his pre-existing corruption charges or for Israel’s massive military-security failure on October 7 and his policy choices that led up to it. If at some point staying in office means allowing the Greater Israel agenda to drive the bus, he might well allow it.
The United States is already struggling to restrain Israel and that is in an environment where US officials publicly emphasize the defensive nature of Israeli policy. Were the United States to fully face up to the expansionist aspects of current Israeli policy, it might recognize that harder-edged pressure is the only way to block Israeli expansion.