Area of Gaza controlled by the Israeli Defence Forces on Jan. 11, 2024.
While the war in the Gaza Strip continues between Hamas guerillas and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in the labyrinth of tunnels burrowed beneath Khan Yunis and in the alleys of the devastated city (population 205,000), another battle is being fought across Israel over the postwar fate of the coastal enclave.
Ultra-nationalist members of Knesset Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the National Religious Party, and Itamar Ben Gvir, head of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), recently called for Gaza’s 2.2 million residents to be voluntarily resettled elsewhere. Congo was cited as a destination for the exodus. U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the statements by Smotrich and Ben Gvir “inflammatory and irresponsible.”
Egypt is adamantly opposed to allowing the two million displaced Gazans to shelter in the Sinai Peninsula, lest Israel prevent the refugees from returning. Similarly, the Jewish state is no more likely to allow them to pass through its territory to fly out of Ben-Gurion Airport than it is to resettle those refugees who fled their nearby villages in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
Further limiting the options, Israel’s high-tech Erez Crossing at the north end of the Gaza Strip – similar in scale to a massive airport terminal – was destroyed during Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage in which some 1,200 Israelis and other nationals living in cities and kibbutzim near the Gaza frontier were massacred and 240 kidnapped.
Concurrently, the black market is burgeoning for fixers with links to Egyptian intelligence; they are making a fortune in “fees” extorted from Gazans desperate to exit through the Rafah Crossing at Gaza’s south end. The bribe for being placed at the head of the legal exit list for passage across the Rafah border into Egypt and on to Cairo International Airport has now soared to $10,000.
In the face of the vast human suffering, staggering damage to infrastructure and environmental catastrophe caused by the conflict, which marked its 100th day on Jan. 14, another controversial postwar scenario is for Israel to rebuild some of the post-1967 Gaza Strip settlements from which it unilaterally withdrew in August 2005. The forcible evacuation of 8,600 Jewish residents from Gush Katif (the Harvest Bloc) – a cluster of 17 villages in the southern Gaza Strip – set the stage for Hamas’s 2007 coup d’état when it seized power from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah in the West Bank.
On Dec. 22, 2023, a group of settlers held an organizational meeting at the agricultural village of Kfar Maimon near the Gaza Strip demarcation fence to launch their plan to create a beachfront community on the barren dunes at Gaza’s southern edge. The day was symbolic since Asarah b’Tevet (the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet) is a fast day in the Hebrew calendar, marking the date 26 centuries ago when Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon began his six-month siege of Jerusalem, which resulted in the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the downfall of the Kingdom of Judah.
Though Gaza was allocated to the Tribe of Judah in the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelites never vanquished their Philistine nemesis who dwelt there and in the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gat and Ekron. Jewish and Samaritan communities intermittently flourished in the territory of Gaza over many centuries. Shaken by the riots of 1929, however, the Gazan Jewish community ended in 1948. In Gaza City’s historic Zaytoun quarter, the Ottoman-style Hammam al-Sammara (the Samaritan bathhouse) bears witness to the ancient Samaritan community that was exiled in 1917 by the Turkish army during the battles of the First World War.
The group of would-be settlers – who staged a car rally just outside Gaza on Jan. 11 – are encouraged by the report that Israel’s Knesset will be hosting a conference Jan. 28 on rebuilding settlements in Gaza after the war, and will offer precise maps and plans. The news site mako.co.il says that Knesset members and other public figures are expected to speak, and thousands of Israelis have already applied to join the settlement nuclei in Gaza.
The organizers of the event stated, “We are working both on the political level and on the practical side towards the moment when they can get on the ground. There is a great demand in the public that the victory of the war includes within it Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip.”
Meanwhile, senior ministers among Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing allies have criticized the IDF over its plans to probe Oct. 7 intelligence failures. And Israel’s future may be hurtling backward to the widespread protests over judicial reform that divided the country in the months that preceded Hamas’s devastating surprise attack. Such is public anger that calls for a spring election are becoming vociferous.
Were Netanyahu and Abbas to both step down, and Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish ties, a postwar scenario of regional integration – including high-speed trains whisking cargo from Haifa to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi – could emerge. The trauma of the Gaza War could give birth to Mideast peace.
More than 50,000 Israelis responded to the Ashkenazi and Sephardi chief rabbis’ call for a day of prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem to mark the new moon of Shevat.
In Judaism, the full moon of Shevat is celebrated as the New Year of the Trees. Besides the pink-white almond blossoms, which mark the beginning of spring, the blood-red anemones also carpet the fields of the western Negev by the Gaza Strip. Like the poppies in Flanders Fields, this year those wildflowers will symbolize the tragedy of war.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem. A longer version of this article can be found at religionunplugged.com/gil-zohar.