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Israeli Cabinet Members Join Settler Event of Thousands Calling for Ethnic Cleansing of Gaza

StoryJanuary 31, 2024
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Image Credit: Oren Ziv

We speak with an Israeli reporter who covered a major conference in Jerusalem calling for Palestinians to be removed from Gaza in order to rebuild Jewish settlements. The conference was attended by about a third of the Israeli Cabinet, including Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, both of whom have long been involved in the extremist settler movement in the West Bank. Conference-goers were greeted by a huge map of planned illegal settlements in Gaza, and the atmosphere was joyful and celebratory, in contrast to what Israeli journalist Oren Ziv with +972 Magazine says is a somber atmosphere in Israeli public life following the October 7 Hamas attack. “This is not just a bunch of extremists; it’s the government,” adds Palestinian physician and activist Mustafa Barghouti in Ramallah.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem Sunday for a major conference calling for Palestinians to be removed from Gaza in order to rebuild Jewish settlements. The conference, organized by the settler group Nahala, was dubbed “Settlement Brings Security in Victory,” was attended by almost a third of the Israeli Cabinet. Among the most high-profile speakers was Israel’s Public Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: [translated] Today everyone already understands that fleeing brings war and that if you don’t want another 7th of October, you have to return home to control the territory.

AMY GOODMAN: Speakers at the conference called for the Israeli settlement of Gaza and the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Another prominent speaker on Sunday’s conference was Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

BEZALEL SMOTRICH: [translated] We were settling our land from width to length, controlling it and fighting terror always and bringing, with God’s help, security to all of Israel. You know what the answer is: Without settlement, there is no security.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Tel Aviv, where we’re joined by Oren Ziv, a reporter and photographer for +972 Magazine who covered the settler conference in Jerusalem on Sunday. His piece is headlined “Turning Zeitoun into Shivat Zion: Israeli summit envisions Gaza resettlement.” Staying with us is Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, speaking to us from Ramallah.

Oren, why don’t you start off by just describing this conference, the significance of it, and what shocked you most as you covered it?

OREN ZIV: Thank you for having me, first of all.

I have to say this is the last event in a series of events and protests of the settler movement calling to what they say is going back to Gaza, returning to the settlements that were evicted by Israel in the 2005 disengagement.

This event was significant because thousands of people took part in it in West Jerusalem. They gathered in a big hall. I could say half of the participants were youth or college students. And you had mostly religious right-wing settlers.

There at the entrance, you had a big map, a huge map, showing the different settlements they plan to establish in the Gaza Strip, some of them literally on top of Palestinian villages and towns that exist and, of course, unfortunately, were destroyed by the Israeli aggression in the recent months.

Inside the hall, we had speeches of, as you said, ministers, parliament members. Four out of five of the — representatives of four out of five of the parties that are in the coalition of Netanyahu’s government were there, 11 ministers and 15 parliament members, so a big support from the government, and also settlers’ leaders and activists.

For me, personally, the most shocking thing was not only the plan to establish the settlements, but the fact that people there were dancing and singing, being happy and joyful. And this is important to understand that in the Israeli public atmosphere, this is something you barely see since the attack of 7 of October. You don’t see public events where people are joyful, not because, you know, most of the Israeli public ignore the horrific reality in Gaza, but because of the war, because of the attack of 7th of October, because Israeli soldiers are being killed every day in the war. You don’t see many of those events. And it shocked even mainstream Israelis to see ministers and people who take those decisions regarding the war dancing, was very shocking for many people. And I think this is because while the vast or big parts of the Israeli public is still in shock, the settler movement see this war as an opportunity to expand their plans to settle in Gaza.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Oren, I wanted to ask you — apparently, the British Foreign Minister David Cameron, I think some reports are saying, reacting to this conference over the weekend, reaffirmed Britain’s position that there must be a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m wondering your thoughts about how some of these Western countries continue to support the war in Gaza while maintaining a two-state solution that they know the Israeli government has made clear it has no intention of following through on.

OREN ZIV: Yes, I think this conference made it very clear, because ahead of the hearing in The Hague, the ICJ hearing, official Israel, Netanyahu and other members of more the center kind of part of the government, tried to portray a picture that Israel will not stay in Gaza, will not settle in Gaza, this is a temporary war. And this event and the participant of senior members of the government makes it very clear that, A, they don’t want any two-state solution — but this we’ve seen over the years — but, more importantly, that they don’t care about the international law. They don’t care about the ICJ procedure. It doesn’t threaten them to continue to express those opinions.

One could think that after ministers and the prime minister himself were quoted in the South African appeal to the court — this were the evidence, actually, what the Israeli politician, the genocidal discourse they were promoting in the beginning of the war — one could think they will be a bit more careful. But the opposite. This was not — it’s important to mention this was not only a conference talking about settling in Gaza. It was very clear, and most of the speakers talked about what they call is the encouraging immigration or forcing people from Gaza. So it’s very clear that the settlement movement is on the account of the residents of Gaza.

Daniella Weiss, one of the settlers’ leader who was leading the conference, when we asked her, “What would happen to the Palestinians if your plans come true?” she said, “They would leave. They would have to leave. We don’t give them food. We don’t give them water.” She was talking about the siege. And she said, “They would leave. They would have to spread around the world.” Also, Minister Ben-Gvir, who was a bit more careful in his language, said, “We have to encourage immigration from Gaza.” So this was a consensus in the conference.

AMY GOODMAN: Oren, we just played a clip of Bezalel Smotrich, who’s a Cabinet member. I’m looking at a Times of Israel article that says — from a few years ago — that the former Shin Bet deputy chief, Yitzhak Ilan — he was the former deputy head of Shin Bet security service — “reportedly told a political gathering that Smotrich was a 'Jewish terrorist,' who planned to blow up cars on a major highway during the 2005 Gaza disengagement,” when the Israeli settlers were forced out, by Israel, of Gaza. Can you talk about the significance of this today, what, almost 20 years later, who Smotrich is? He was held for three weeks, questioned by Shin Bet, ultimately wasn’t charged. Apparently, they didn’t want to endanger their sources, who talked about him being found with massive amounts of gasoline.

OREN ZIV: Yes, this is true. Smotrich was a security prisoner. He was suspected in that but not convicted. But this shows us, together with Ben-Gvir, that — I personally documented and saw him attacking Palestinians, attacking Israeli left-wing activists along the years, before he became a parliament member and a minister. So, these are people that are well known from the right-wing extreme activities. And unfortunately, today, they decide the policies. They lead Israel.

And I think this is why also Netanyahu and kind of the more center-right part of the government cannot say this is not official Israel, this is not the official line, because we’ve seen Netanyahu, ahead of the ICJ, and we’ve seen other speakers of Israel saying, “Well, they’re ministers, they’re parliament members, but they’re not in the war cabinet. They don’t take the decision.” This is, of course, just rhetoric to protect Israel from being accountable, I think, when we see such a big number of ministers, senior ministers, and parliament members taking part in this conference, that is callingly open to transfer, to displace Palestinians from Gaza.

And maybe more important, I think this discourse, it’s important to say, also encourages soldiers on the ground, right-wing soldiers, settler soldiers, or just ordinary soldiers that hear this rhetoric on Israeli mainstream media, on social media. It encourages them to carry out war crimes. The war itself is horrific enough, but I’m afraid that this rhetoric by members of the government encourages or gives the feeling to the soldiers on the ground they can do anything, because if Israel, according to this conference, will eventually control the Gaza Strip, it means soldiers on the ground — and we’ve seen that on TikTok, on Instagram, on social media — can do whatever they want, because it belongs to Israel. So they can explode houses. They can vandalize. They can steal property. They can do whatever they want, because this eventually will be Israeli property.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring Dr. Mustafa Barghouti back into the conversation. Doctor, your reaction to this conference and to these post-invasion plans of the Israeli — of a good portion of the Israeli government?

DR. MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI: Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are known to be fascists, of course, and sometimes they are described as psychopaths. But they are not really only psychopaths. They are the ones who are deciding the Israeli government policy. And none of their statements, fascist statements, was ever negated by Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel. And these guys are representing what can be called Jewish religious extreme fundamentalism combined with Jewish supremacy thinking. And they believe that the whole of the land of Palestine and Jordan, as well, and parts of Saudi Arabia and Syria are supposed to be Jewish land.

And these guys are practically repeating — confirming, actually, what had happened in 1948, when Israel, as a settler colonial project, committed 50 massacres against Palestinians and evicted people from 520 communities and then razed them to the ground. They want to repeat what Israel did in 1948, another Nakba against Palestinian people. And they are speaking openly about three war crimes simultaneously: the war crime of ethnic cleansing, the war crime of collective punishment and the war crime of genocide. They want to evict everybody from Gaza. And that’s, by the way, what Netanyahu himself called for in the very first days of this war. That’s what Gallant called for when he said that Palestinians are “human animals” and should be treated as such.

And what you’ve seen in this conference, this is not just a bunch of extremists; it’s the government, the Israeli government. Twelve ministers of the Israeli government attended that meeting and supported it. Fifteen members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, attended it. So you are talking here practically about the official Israeli policy, which is directed at ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and then settlements, not only in Gaza. As a matter of fact, also in the West Bank, we are now subjected to settler terror — settlers’ terror, which has evicted already 30 Palestinian communities from their land, from their homes in the West Bank. Sixty percent of the West Bank is now practically forbidden for Palestinians and is allocated to the Israeli settlers.

And we don’t have to go far. All we need — all you need to do is to show the map that Netanyahu has shown in the United States or in the United Nations two weeks before the war in Gaza. He showed the map of Israel including the annexation of all of the West Bank, all of Gaza Strip and all of the Golan Heights. What everybody must understand, that this is the Israeli official government policy. And that’s why it has to be punished. That’s why it has to be sanctioned. And that’s why it has to be exposed. And Israel cannot be allowed to continue to be absolutely unaccountable to international law and absolutely impunitive to international law.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Mustafa Barghouti, Palestinian physician, activist and politician. We also want to thank Oren Ziv in Tel Aviv, a reporter and photojournalist with +972 Magazine.

That does it for our show. We have a job opening at Democracy Now!, major gifts officer. Learn more at democracynow.org.

Democracy Now! is produced with Mike Burke, Renée Feltz. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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