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Israeli settler conference exposes deepening chasm in Middle East – as airstrikes rock region

There was dancing, assault rifles, and raucous nationalist chants.

In scenes that have sparked widespread condemnation, over a thousand gathered at a conference in Jerusalem on Sunday to call for the revival of Israeli settlements in Gaza.

The event, entitled “Settlement brings Security”, was attended by influential members of Israel’s war cabinet - including extremist firebrands Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich - as well as several politicians from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

Conference hall vendors sold t-shirts with the slogan “Gaza is part of the land of Israel”, whilst a huge board displayed a map showing the proposed locations of new Israeli settlements inside Gaza – some on top of existing Palestinian towns.

The event highlights the deepening chasm between the foreign policy aims of Israel’s key allies. Namely “a clear pathway to a Palestinian state”, and major figures in the Israeli government who want the opposite: the gradual takeover of remaining Palestinian land.

“The Arabs will not stay in Gaza,” settler leader Daniella Weiss told the crowd, “not Hamas, not the supporters of Hamas, and those who do not support Hamas don’t want to stay anyway.”

Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)
Israel Palestinians (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

“If we don’t want another October 7, we need to... control the territory,” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

The settler movement is a largely religious faction who believe that the restoration of the historical land of Israel will hasten the coming of the Messiah. They use this belief to justify encroachment on Palestinian land, establishing settlements throughout the West Bank that are deemed illegal under international law.

Currently, around 400,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, alongside 3 million Palestinians.

For 38 years up to 2005, Israeli settlers also held a bloc of settlements inside Gaza known as Gush Katif - a bloc that many at the conference wish to see revived.

Never in Israeli history has the settler movement held such sway over the Prime Minister - who currently leads the most religious and ultranationalist government in Israel’s 75-year-existence.

The challenge of reconciling members of that government with the diplomatic aims of Israel’s chief allies is an unenviable, if not impossible, task - though Netanyahu himself has said he does not support the resettlement of Gaza, stating it was “not a realistic target”.

“The government reached a new low tonight,” said Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition and centrist Yesh Atid party. “[The conference] is a disgrace on behalf of Netanyahu and the party, which was once at the centre of the national camp but is now being dragged aimlessly after extremists.”

Senior war cabinet member Gadi Eisenkot, whose son was killed in December during heavy fighting in Gaza, dubbed the conference “an event that divides Israeli society and increases distrust in the government.”

The internal disagreement comes as tensions across the entire region once again threaten to simmer over.

On Sunday, three US troops were killed and 34 injured as an airstrike by an Iran-backed militant group hit a US military base in Jordan - in a major escalation which US President Joe Biden has said will see a response.

The attack is just the latest in a spate of airstrikes that have ripped through the Middle East since the start of the year.

The US and UK have hit the Houthis in Yemen. Iran and Pakistan have traded tit-for-tat strikes. Israel has targeted enemies in Lebanon and Syria. And Iran-backed militias have continually attacked US forces in Iraq and elsewhere.

Until now, though, no US troops had been killed.

The White House’s response to this latest escalation is one that will have to be carefully thought-through - and Biden already finds himself under pressure from Republicans who are pushing for direct action on Iran.

“He left our troops as sitting ducks,” said Republican U.S. Senator Tom Cotton. “The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East.”

“Hit Iran hard. Hit them now,” wrote Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, on X.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak urged Iran to de-escalate, saying, “we stand resolutely with our allies to bring stability and peace to the region and that’s what we continue to work towards.”

Though Washington won’t admit it, the events of the past month have already thrust it into a regional war, and it must choose its response with caution - or risk being dragged into an even broader and bloodier conflict.

Israel, meanwhile, ploughed on with its military campaign in Gaza on Monday morning, as tanks continued to dig in around the southern city of Khan Younis - home of Hamas’ leader in Gaza Yahya Sinwar.

Overnight Israeli bombing of the territory killed around 140 people, including 20 members of one family, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory. The death toll now stands at 26,422 people, most of them women and children, according to the same health ministry.