JERUSALEM — Warnings from the White House — and the United Nations’ top court — appear to have done little to stop some of Israel’s right-wing ministers from touting a vision that the country’s own prime minister has dismissed: rebuilding Israeli settlements in Gaza after the war.
Several ministers within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s right-wing government were among thousands of people who flocked to a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday night calling for Israelis’ “resettlement” of Gaza, with far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich delivering keynote speeches.
The conference, dubbed “Settlement Brings Security,” was led in part by the right-wing Nachala organization, a group advocating for the expansion of Jewish settlements, which are considered illegal by international and humanitarian bodies. The event called for Israel to rebuild settlements in both Gaza and northern parts of the occupied West Bank.
Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza as it unilaterally withdrew from the territory in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. The enclave was left in the control of the Palestinian Authority, with Hamas assuming control in 2007 after it won elections held in 2006 and a subsequent brutal power struggle with its main rival, Fatah.
While Netanyahu has said Israel has “no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” questions have remained over what the future of the enclave will look like once Israel’s war against Hamas ends.
In the entrance hall of the conference Sunday, a massive map outlined what organizers said was their vision for settlements in Gaza — from north to the south of the enclave.
The director of Nachala, Daniella Weiss, a well-known leader of the Israeli settler movement, told NBC News the map envisions a future in which “all of [the] Gaza Strip is a part of the state of Israel, of the land of Israel.”
“After Oct. 7th, history changed,” she said, referring to the Hamas attacks that day on Israel, in which around 1,200 people were killed and 260 people were taken hostage into Gaza. “It’s the end of the presence of Arabs in Gaza. It’s the end.”
“Instead of them, there will be many, many Jews that will return to the settlements, that will build new settlements,” she said.
Taking the stage at the conference, Ben-Gvir called on Netanyahu to be “courageous,” saying now was the time to develop Israeli settlements in Gaza — and to “encourage” Palestinians to leave the enclave.
Smotrich said he had “mixed emotions” about the event, with Israel being focused on the war against Hamas, but he said that the country is at a crossroads and that “without settlement, there’s no security.”
Their comments sparked cheers from a roaring audience, with several ministers at one point getting up from their seats in the front row to join fellow attendees as they broke into song and dance.
In addition to Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu and Tourism Minister Haim Katz, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, were also at the event, along with a number of other politicians.
They took part in the conference after the International Court of Justice on Friday ordered Israel to do everything in its power to prevent acts of genocide in its offensive in Gaza, in which more than 26,000 people have been killed and more than 64,000 have been injured, with thousands more missing and presumed dead, according to Palestinian officials.
The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates condemned the conference on X, saying it posed a “blatant challenge” to the international court’s ruling and encouraged the displacement of Palestinians by force.
The U.N.’s top court stopped short of ordering a cease-fire, which South Africa, the plaintiff in the case, had requested.
Inflammatory rhetoric from prominent figures within Israel’s government played a key part in South Africa’s case accusing Israel of genocide, a charge Israel denied.
But on Sunday, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir appeared undeterred by both the events at The Hague and a recent warning from the Biden administration to put an immediate “stop” to rhetoric advocating for the “resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.”
“This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on Jan. 2, responding to comments made by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir.
“We have been told repeatedly and consistently by the Government of Israel, including by the Prime Minister, that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government,” he said, adding that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir should “stop immediately.”
The U.S., Miller said, has been “clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land” but with Hamas “no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel.”
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the Israeli ministers’ attendance.
Since the start of the war, Netanyahu has faced a constant balancing act of trying to maintain support from the Biden administration while also trying to steer the most far-right government in Israeli history after it formed a coalition dependent on extremist pro-settler politicians.
While thousands of people flocked to Sunday’s event, recent polling carried out in early December by Hebrew University found more than half of Israelis opposed annexing the Gaza Strip and reinstating settlements that were dismantled during Israel’s 2005 withdrawal, according to The Times of Israel.
In a survey of more than 1,800 people, 56% of Israelis said they were against the policy, while 33% were in favor and 11% were uncertain, the newspaper reported.
Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid said on X that Israeli ministers’ participation Sunday represented a “new low” for Netanyahu’s government.
He also expressed fears the event could damage possible negotiations toward a deal to release hostages held in Gaza, as well as Israel’s international standing as it continues to face scrutiny over its deadly offensive in Gaza.
And he wasn’t the only one to condemn the attendance of government ministers at the event, with criticism also coming from within Israel’s war Cabinet.
”Everyone who participated yesterday in the event in the International Convention Center and especially elected officials — learned nothing and a half from the events of the past year, about the importance of actions with a broad national consensus and solidarity in Israeli society,” war Cabinet member and former military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot said in a post on social media Monday morning.
“Even while putting fundamental differences aside for the sake of the common goals — the return of the hostages and the defeat of Hamas, others find time for an event that divides Israeli society, increases the existing lack of trust in the government and its elected officials and, above all, sharpens the divisive over the unity,” Eisenkot said.