Israeli opposition slams far-right Gaza resettlement conference

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Nearly a third of the ministers in the Israeli cabinet attended a far-right conference calling for the re-establishment of Jewish settlements in Gaza, sparking a backlash from opposition politicians.

Ultranationalist finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attended the Sunday evening event, with Ben-Gvir saying Israel should “encourage voluntary migration” of Palestinians.

He also called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to approve the return of settlements to Gaza and the north of the occupied West Bank.

“We need to return to the Land of Israel because it is our home, because this is the Torah and this is the morality and this is historical justice and this is the logic and this is what is right,” Ben-Gvir said at the conference in Jerusalem, which was also attended by lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Netanyahu has said throughout the war that he does not support the return of Jewish settlers to Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, while US officials have also made clear that they would oppose such a move.

However, many Gazans fear that Israel’s massive use of force in the enclave, which has internally displaced more than 80 per cent of the local population, is designed to render it uninhabitable and force them to flee to Egypt — something Egyptian officials have repeatedly insisted cannot be allowed to happen.

Asked about the conference the day before it took place, Netanyahu said that while ministers were entitled to their “opinions”, it was the full cabinet that decided government policy.

“What obligates the government of Israel are the decisions of the cabinet,” he said. “No one has taken this decision [to re-establish Jewish settlements in Gaza] up till this day.”

However, the presence of such a large chunk of the cabinet at the conference underscores the pressure on the prime minister from the extreme-right lawmakers on whom his coalition depends.

Since forming his coalition with ultra-orthodox parties, and Smotrich and Ben-Gvir last year, Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted that he is the person with “hands on the wheel”.

But in recent weeks, he has shied away from a detailed discussion of postwar plans for Gaza — which critics say is because of his unwillingness to spark a showdown with far-right members of his coalition.

Gadi Eisenkot, a former opposition politician who joined Netanyahu’s five- man war cabinet along with ally Benny Gantz at the start of the war, criticised the coalition members who attended, accusing them of finding “time for an event that divides Israeli society, increases the existing distrust in the government and its elected representatives”.

“Everyone who participated yesterday in the event, and especially elected officials, learned nothing . . . from the events of the past year, about the importance of actions with a broad national consensus and solidarity in Israeli society,” he wrote on Facebook on Monday morning.

Meanwhile, Yair Lapid, head of the largest opposition party, Yesh Atid, said the attendance of so many coalition lawmakers at the conference marked a “new low” for the government.

“The settlement conference in Gaza of the ‘Jewish Power’ party, with many ministers from the Likud party, is a disgrace on the head of Netanyahu and to a party that was once at the centre of the nationalist camp and is now trailing helplessly behind the extremists,” he said.

“This is international damage, it is damage to a possible deal, it endangers IDF soldiers, it is terrible irresponsibility,” he added. “Netanyahu is unfit, this government is unfit.”

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