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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Analysis | The Israeli right hopes not just for victory in Gaza, but also conquest

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Even as the bloody war in Gaza rolls on, foreign officials and Israeli politicians are increasingly animated about the endgame. Israel’s unity government, led by the polarizing right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not been clear about its plans for the territory once it deems the military threat posed by militant Islamist group Hamas extinguished. That’s probably because it hasn’t figured those plans out yet, given the complex ground battle underway and the growing pressures of global public opinion agitating against Israel’s continued bombardment of the tiny Palestinian territory where Hamas is entrenched.

Netanyahu himself has ruled out involving the beleaguered Palestinian Authority in a postwar scenario in Gaza, much to the bemusement of the United States and other Western allies. Meanwhile, Israeli President Isaac Herzog suggested in a Thursday interview with the Financial Times that Israel could maintain a “very strong” occupying force in Gaza in order to prevent the emergence of a security vacuum. “There are many ideas that are thrown in the air,” Herzog said. “But no one will want to turn this place, Gaza, into a terror base again.”

Perhaps the most articulated ideas on what should come next among Israelis are being voiced on Netanyahu’s right flank. And they also happen to be the most hard-line and extreme visions for what Israel should do in Gaza.

Consider the remarks of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who, while inciting new rounds of violence in the West Bank, also suggested anyone who sympathizes with Hamas should be “eliminated.” Or those of Amihai Eliyahu, a far-right coalition partner of Netanyahu and Israel’s heritage minister, who said dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza could be an option. Or the call from Galit Distel Atbaryan, recently (but no longer) Israel’s information minister, to erase “all of Gaza from the face of the earth” and drive its Palestinians into exile in Egypt.

That rhetoric is not far from the extremist views of the sitting finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who said this week that Israel “would no longer be able to accept” an independent Palestinian entity in Gaza and called for the “voluntary emigration” of its people to countries elsewhere in the world.

As Israel’s war in Gaza continues, violence by Israeli settlers in the West Bank has increased. But even before the war, settler attacks were on the rise. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post)

Not for nothing do myriad critics of Israeli policy fear that the nation is orchestrating a campaign of de facto ethnic cleansing. The majority of the territory’s population is already displaced, with no guarantees that they may ever return to their homes. In a statement Thursday, a panel of U.N. human rights experts reiterated that the “grave violations committed by Israel against Palestinians” since Oct. 7 raised “the risk of genocide in Gaza.” Omer Bartov, an Israeli historian of the Holocaust, recently said that the loud calls for Gaza’s destruction and depopulation coming from corners of the Israeli right display a “clear intention of ethnic cleansing.”

After Netanyahu returned to power roughly a year ago with a coalition that depended on the support of figures such as Smotrich and Ben Gvir — who in previous decades were considered beyond the pale of the country’s electoral politics — the veteran prime minister argued that he was in control of his cabinet and that they were not. But that didn’t seem to be the case, with an already right-wing Israeli establishment embracing all the more hard-line and anti-Palestinian policies in the months before Hamas carried out its terrorist strike on towns in southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Then, in the wake of the worst attack on Jewish people since the Holocaust, prominent voices on the right seized upon the violence as proof of the legitimacy of their ideology over that of more-moderate Israeli factions. That includes anger over Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, which is bitterly lamented by settler groups, some of whom now hope to restore the Jewish settlements that were once there.

Amit Halevi, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, recently submitted a bill to further amend the 2005 Disengagement Law and permit Israelis freedom of movement in Gaza after the war. That followed the emergence of a leaked document from Israel’s Intelligence Ministry proposing the forcible transfer of Gaza’s Palestinians into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The punishing military doctrine that Israel may be following in Gaza

For now, neither the Israeli government nor its military has officially stated intentions to pursue Gaza’s indefinite occupation or resettlement. International demands for a cease-fire are getting louder. Since Oct. 7, 1 in every 57 Palestinians living in Gaza has been killed or injured in Israel’s airstrikes or ground invasion, according to Volker Türk, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights. “It is apparent that on both sides, some view the killing of civilians as either acceptable collateral damage, or a deliberate and useful weapon of war,” he told diplomats in Geneva on Thursday. “This is a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. The killing of so many civilians cannot be dismissed as collateral damage.”

On Thursday, the United States chose not to veto — and therefore allow the passage of — a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for “extended humanitarian pauses,” though not quite a cease-fire. “Much more aid is urgently needed. The current levels are woefully insufficient,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the American envoy to the United Nations, who had vetoed earlier calls for such pauses, told reporters.

The priority for Israeli politicians and security officials at present remains to crush Hamas and rescue as many hostages imprisoned in its Gaza hideouts as possible. Israel has effectively captured Gaza City in the north of the Gaza Strip, while driving the bulk of its Palestinian population in a panicked exodus to others parts of the territory. Israel appears to be weighing a number of other steps, including a potential deal for Hamas to free some hostages in exchange for a temporary cease-fire. Hamas agreed to the proposal, negotiated primarily via interlocutors in Qatar, but Israel may opt instead to escalate its campaign to the south.

What happens later, though, is likely to become a source of more contentious debate. The Biden administration has backed Israel’s right to self-defense but has already warned Israel not to overstep. “I made it clear to the Israelis I think it’s a big mistake for them to think they’re going to occupy Gaza and maintain Gaza,” President Biden told a news conference in San Francisco. “I don’t think that works.”

A reckoning seems more imminent than before. Israeli forces have not just severely degraded Hamas’s military capacity in recent weeks, but also pulverized much of Gaza and even demolished some of its civic institutions, including the territory’s main parliament building, according to reports. “Hamas’ governing capabilities have been destroyed, and it seems increasingly likely that at a minimum its military capabilities will be curtailed to the point of setting it back to where it was 15 years ago when it had no real capability to threaten Israel from its territory,” observed Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum. “While this does not mean that Hamas will have been completely destroyed, its control of Gaza already has.”

The question, then, is who or what will fill the breach. On the Israeli left, there’s real dread about the possible answer. “As the last 50 years have shown, any single settler’s hallucination should be taken seriously, and treated as a plan of action by the next government, if not the current one,” wrote Haaretz columnist Amira Hass. “And when the hallucination is built on overt plans for total destruction and mass expulsion, wars are the most suitable ground for its realization.”

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