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Canada, allies condemn 'Victory Conference' as push to reoccupy Gaza gains momentum in Israel

A man holds up a sign that says in Hebrew
A man holds up a sign that says in Hebrew

On Tuesday, the Trudeau government appeared to criticize a jubilant "Victory Conference" in Jerusalem. Organizers of Sunday's conference — which was attended by about a third of the Israeli cabinet — presented plans for proposed Israeli settlements in Gaza.

"Canada rejects any proposal that calls for the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and the establishment of additional settlements. Such inflammatory rhetoric undermines prospects for lasting peace," said a statement from Global Affairs Canada.

In addition to the dozen ministers serving in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet who attended the conference, some other ministers said they had missed it only because of other duties, or that they would be sure to attend the next one.

Attendees included three ministers from Netanyahu's Likud Party and representatives of other parties in his coalition. Two Likud ministers appeared in a video with settler leader Daniella Weiss last week urging people to join them at the "Nation-building Conference for the Victory of Israel."

Mourners carry the Bodies of Ibrahim Awad, right, and Mohammad Fawaqa, during their funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Awad was killed during clashes with Israeli settlers near his home village of Dura al-Qara' and Fawaqa was killed during an Israeli army raid in the village of Qebia, west of Ramallah, while two other Palestinians were killed during Israeli army raids early morning in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian ministry of health said.

Mourners carry the Bodies of Ibrahim Awad, right, and Mohammad Fawaqa, during their funeral in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Awad was killed during clashes with Israeli settlers near his home village of Dura al-Qara' and Fawaqa was killed during an Israeli army raid in the village of Qebia, west of Ramallah, while two other Palestinians were killed during Israeli army raids early morning in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian ministry of health said. (Nasser Nasser/Associated Press)

Those attending the event heard speeches urging the replacement of Gaza's Palestinian population with Jewish settlers, scenes of religious fervour and chants of "Oslo is dead!" — a reference to the 1993 Oslo Accords and the peace process that was supposed to lead to a Palestinian state.

Weiss said at the conference she's confident Gaza will soon be open for settlement.

"They [Palestinians] will leave. We don't give them food, we don't give them anything. They have to leave," she said in English. "The world will accept them."

White House 'troubled'

Canada's condemnation did not mention the conference directly and came only after strong statements of repudiation from other western allies. On Monday, the White House said in a media statement that it was "troubled" by the event, and the fact that it was "endorsed and attended by members of the Government of Israel."

"This rhetoric is incendiary and irresponsible, and we take the prime minister at his word when he says that Israel does not intend to reoccupy Gaza," the statement said.

France's foreign ministry issued its own statement calling on the Israeli government to condemn the event. "France recalls that the International Court of Justice recently set out Israel's obligation to take all measures within its power to prevent and punish this kind of rhetoric," it said.

"It is not up to the Israeli government to decide where Palestinians should live on their land."

U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

U.S. President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 18, 2023. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The U.K. government said it was also "alarmed" by the presence of government figures at the event. "The U.K.'s position is clear: Gaza is occupied Palestinian territory and will be part of the future Palestinian state," said the Foreign Office. "Settlements are illegal. No Palestinian should be threatened with forcible displacement or relocation."

Netanyahu's response on Tuesday was to visit Eli, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank built on land expropriated from two Palestinian villages, where he received a rapturous welcome from settlers.

CBC News reached out to the Israeli embassy in Canada for comment on the conference and Canada's condemnation, but did not receive a response.

Tensions in the war cabinet

The conference sharpened tensions between members of Netanyahu's coalition government — which took power just over a year ago — and the temporary national unity war cabinet formed in the wake of the October 7 Hamas massacre, which includes Netanyahu's opponents.

Gadi Eisenkot, a former commander of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) who recently lost his son and nephew fighting in Gaza, said politicians who attended the event "have not learned a single thing from the events of the past year."

While Israeli soldiers were fighting in Gaza, he said, "others are finding time for an event that divides Israeli society and increases distrust in the government."

The rowdy conference was "a freak show," said former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, who served as foreign policy adviser to two Israeli PMs and chief of staff to two foreign ministers.

"This is about salvation and redemption and God's will and the promises he made. You know, this is the kind of jargon that they use," he told CBC News.

"But you cannot dismiss that this strain in Israeli politics, which existed for a long time now, feels emboldened and reinforced and they are in power. They're a minority, but they're nonetheless in power, encouraged enthusiastically almost by a prime minister who put them in that position."

Pinkas said Netanyahu's silence about the event is telling.

"He hasn't said a word about this," he said. "There's no evidence pointing to it being against his wishes, or that they did it behind his back or anything like that."

National security minister calls for 'voluntary emigration'

Pinkas said he still doesn't believe the Netanyahu government is ready to officially approve settlements in Gaza.

"This was not about settlement but more about shameless calls to expel and displace Palestinians, merely days after the ICJ," he said, referring to the International Court of Justice's decision last week to order Israel to prevent and punish direct incitement of genocide as it prosecutes the war in Gaza.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir did indeed use his attendance at the conference to issue a public call for "voluntary emigration" of Gazans — a term generally understood in both Tel Aviv and Washington as a euphemism for expulsion.

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends an event to deliver weapons to local volunteer security group members in Ashkelon, Israel, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.
Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends an event to deliver weapons to local volunteer security group members in Ashkelon, Israel, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023.

Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir attends an event to deliver weapons to local volunteer security group members in Ashkelon, Israel, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press)

Netanyahu's chief political rival Benny Gantz, another former IDF chief of staff and a member of the war cabinet, is polling ahead of the prime minister. He condemned Netanyahu for not responding to Ben Gvir's speech and seemed to suggest he would use his role in the war cabinet to block any move to expel Palestinians from Gaza.

"He who danced and caused division [at the conference] doesn't make the decisions, and he who remains silent and is being led along is not a leader," said Gantz.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid party (who also leads Netanyahu in the polls), said the prime minister's silence on the conference "loudly says one thing — 'Let the whole country burn, what matters is that I stay in power.'"

Lapid described the wild scenes of dancing at the conference as a slap in the face to families of IDF soldiers fighting Hamas in Gaza.

"Our troops are freezing in Gaza and they are dancing," he said. "Hundreds of thousands of families are in a panic over every ring at the door, and they are dancing."

Support for Gaza settlement growing fast in Israel

Although leaders of the Israeli left and centre condemned the event, Tel Aviv University's Peace Index poll last Wednesday showed that about 53 per cent of Jewish Israelis are in favour of the idea of settling Gaza — twice the number that support a two-state solution.

But polls also show that most Israelis want Netanyahu gone and his Likud Party would lose half its seats in the Knesset in any election in the near future.

With his credentials as Israel's "Mr. Security" already in shreds because of the October 7 massacre, Netanyahu may now be preparing to throw away his other frequent pitch to Israeli voters — his claim to be a Washington insider who can get what Israel wants from the White House and the U.S. Congress.

Netanyahu could be leaning toward a new strategy that would embrace Israel's isolation by risking a more open break with the Biden administration and casting himself as the defender of Israeli expansion against pressure from allies.

An Israeli settler heckles Israelis protesting near the home of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir against plans by Benjamin Netanyahu's government efforts to overhaul the judiciary, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.
An Israeli settler heckles Israelis protesting near the home of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir against plans by Benjamin Netanyahu's government efforts to overhaul the judiciary, in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023.

An Israeli settler heckles Israelis protesting near the home of far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press)

Numbers like those in the Peace Index poll suggest such an approach could have electoral success. Gloom about the war's stated goal of annihilating Hamas has led some to argue that the only way to seize victory is to crown the conquest of Gaza with a new plantation of Israeli settlers — that only when Palestinians see Jewish settlers living on the ruins of their former homes will they truly understand that Israel has won and they have lost.

The movement names its proposed settlements Neve Katif, or "New Harvest," in honour of the Gush Katif or "Harvest Bloc" settlements that Israel evacuated from southern coastal Gaza in 2005.

Settlers see a chance to reverse history

Jewish settlers first began to enter Gaza following Israel's capture of the territory in the 1967 War. By 2004 there were 21 Israeli settlements in Gaza, home to almost 8,000 Israelis.

That year, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon decided to launch his "unilateral disengagement" plan and freeze the peace process.

Sharon wanted Israel to redraw and retrench the Jewish presence across the occupied territories, reinforcing it in lands that were considered more important to Jewish tradition and more defensible — places where Jews were — or might become — a majority.

Gaza met none of those requirements. Its occupation was costly to Israel in lives and in money. So Sharon ordered the evacuation of settlers from Gaza in 2005, igniting a national drama which saw many Jewish settlers barricade themselves inside their settlement homes.

It was a seminal moment for young settler radicals in Israel and some were ready to go to extremes. Israel's Shin Bet security service arrested and jailed four young radical settlers for allegedly plotting attacks on infrastructure.

One of those four detained settlers, Bezalel Smotrich, is today Israel's minister of finance.

Bezalel Smotrich makes a court appearance as a Shin Bet security prisoner in 2005, when he was detained on suspicion of plotting attacks to prevent the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza. Today he is Israel's minister of finance and a leading proponent of Gaza's settlement.
Bezalel Smotrich makes a court appearance as a Shin Bet security prisoner in 2005, when he was detained on suspicion of plotting attacks to prevent the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza. Today he is Israel's minister of finance and a leading proponent of Gaza's settlement.

Bezalel Smotrich makes a court appearance as a Shin Bet security prisoner in 2005, when he was detained on suspicion of plotting attacks to prevent the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza. Today he is Israel's minister of finance and a leading proponent of Gaza's settlement. (Israel Reports)

Smotrich spoke at the Victory Conference, declaring that, "God willing, we will settle and we will be victorious." His party, Religious Zionism, is third-largest in the Knesset and is critical to the Netanyahu coalition's survival.

His ally is Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), who also has a long history with Israel's security services, including convictions for inciting hatred and supporting terrorism. His party holds six crucial seats.

Netanyahu came to power promising western allies that he could control the radicals in what all agreed was Israel's most right-wing government ever. "My hands are firmly on the steering wheel," he assured U.S. media outlets.

But his precarious personal situation has given his most radical allies leverage over him. If Smotrich or Ben Gvir were to withdraw their parties from his coalition, his government would fall — and he would have to face three pending corruption trials. Netanyahu can't be convicted in those trials while he's still prime minister.

That gives the two men great influence over Netanyahu, said Pinkas. But Ben Gvir and Smotrich also need Netanyahu, because their own parties could never form a government without Likud.

"There are two things [Netanyahu] manages to do with extreme skill and competence, and that is winning elections and maintaining a coalition, which you can't say about most of his rivals," he said.

Cracks in the army

In recent weeks, Israelis have remarked on a growing trend of soldiers taking political positions publicly — especially reservists, who tend to be older, have jobs in civilian life and be more willing to challenge commanders.

Some army reservists have set up a tent outside the prime minister's office demanding that Israel use harsher methods in Gaza.

Senior officers have worried about a growing number of soldiers posting pro-settlement messages, flying Neve Katif flags, using orange colours associated with the Gaza settlement movement, or painting pro-settlement graffiti on Palestinian homes.

One such video message seen by many Israelis shows four IDF soldiers in front of destroyed buildings addressing Netanyahu. "We conquer, we destroy, we settle. Did you hear that Bibi [Netanyahu]? We conquer, we destroy, we settle."

"This is a bad phenomenon," Pinkas told CBC News. "There have always been claims that unless the political system changes somehow, the military will become a factionalized reflection of what's going on in society."

On Monday, Israelis were shocked to see footage of IDF soldiers wrestling a uniformed comrade to the ground and arresting him at a crossing into Gaza, where Israeli protesters have been trying to block food from entering the starving enclave. The soldier appeared to have sided with the protesters.

Another video on Tuesday showed IDF reservists urging Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to stop food aid from entering Gaza. "Don't be afraid to occupy," one soldier tells him.

Although Pinkas said he doesn't expect the Netanyahu government to officially approve new settlements in Gaza, "there is a possibility, that no one should take lightly, that just like the settlements in the West Bank, two vans show up out of nowhere in the middle of the night on some godforsaken hill or rubble. They put a flag and call it the ancestral Gaza."

Many Israeli settlements that began in just that way have gone on to be legalized, subsidized and connected to the electrical grid.

Pinkas said that during active combat operations, he would expect the army to block such an effort.

"But what happens if you have three simultaneous events like that, or three events like that within 10 days?" he asked.

He said he fears that dismantling such embryonic settlements could further expose the faultlines in a politicized army.

"If a brigade commander now gives an order to evacuate two illegal outposts in the West Bank or indeed in Gaza, you're going to have a bunch of soldiers who may disobey orders," he said. "And if that happens, then all hell breaks loose. This is a country that will be seriously considered as having unraveled at the seams.

"We're not there yet. But there are very disconcerting signs about this."