Israel’s pernicious far right keeps peace in the Middle East a remote prospect

Posted on : 2024-02-27 17:46 KST Modified on : 2024-02-27 17:58 KST
The innately weak government of Netanyahu has helped bolster figures on the far right like Ben-Gvir, who openly advocate for the erasure of Gaza so that Israelis may resettle their “promised land”
Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir (center), dances with participants at a conference dubbed “Settlement Brings Security,” held in Jerusalem, on Jan. 28, 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)
Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir (center), dances with participants at a conference dubbed “Settlement Brings Security,” held in Jerusalem, on Jan. 28, 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)

“We cannot have women and children getting close to the border… anyone who gets near must get a bullet [in the head],” blurted Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir in an argument over the military’s open-fire rules with Herzi Halevi, chief of the general staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, in a meeting of the Israeli cabinet on Feb 13. Ben-Gvir’s comments were quoted by the Jerusalem Post.

When Halevi spoke of the need for strict open-fire rules to prevent incidents of friendly fire, Ben-Gvir said, “You know how our enemies operate... they will try us. They will send women and children as undercover terrorists.” That was the context of his extreme comment about “putting a bullet” in their heads.

Members of the Israeli far right such as Ben-Gvir pose a threat to peace throughout the Middle East. That was underlined by a far-right conference called “Settlement Brings Security” held in Jerusalem on Jan. 28, with Ben-Gvir in attendance.

More than 3,000 participants at the rally shouted the slogan “Gaza belongs to us.” Ben-Gvir wrapped his arms around the shoulders of other attendees while dancing and singing.

Rally participants marked where they wanted to live on a big map of the Gaza Strip and affixed new place names inspired by Israeli soldiers killed in the ongoing war against Hamas. Most of the participants were Jewish settlers living in the West Bank and members of fundamentalist Jewish parties. The rally was attended by 11 of 37 members of Israel’s wartime cabinet (including Ben-Gvir), representing about 30% of the total.

Although Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and shut down Jewish settlements there in 2005, the rally participants oppose those steps and want to establish new Jewish settlements in Gaza. As it happens, the Israeli hard right’s position on these issues clashes with that of the international community.

The US and other members of the international community have proposed trying once more to establish a Palestinian state that would be composed of the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip as a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. They also want the Gaza Strip to be governed not by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that provoked the current war with its surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 last year, but by the Palestinian Authority, which currently governs the West Bank.

But as was evident in last month’s rally in Jerusalem, the Israeli far right doesn’t accept the international community’s requests, instead regarding the Gaza Strip as being God’s “promised land” for the Jews. They also argue that Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7 was the result of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Ben-Gvir is regarded as being on the radical right even for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, which is considered the hardest right-wing government in Israel’s history. He supports expelling Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and even takes the absurd position that the international community ought to be responsible for supporting the Palestinians.

The Netanyahu government has said little about Ben-Gvir’s comments other than to note they don’t represent the government’s official position. Indeed, Netanyahu’s cabinet has even looked into plans to take over Gaza and deport its Palestinian population.

On Oct. 13, just six days after the war in Gaza broke out, the Israeli cabinet’s intelligence office drafted a report proposing first evacuating Palestinians to Gaza’s southern section and then forcibly relocating them to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense denied there was any substance to the report, which it said was merely an early draft on the Gaza issue. But current developments do point in that direction.

In the initial phase of the war, the Israeli military ordered residents of the northern half of the Gaza Strip, including Gaza City (the largest city in Gaza), to evacuate to the south. Now that Palestinians have gathered in Khan Yunis, the largest city in Gaza’s southern half, Israel demands that they evacuate to refugee camps on a desolate stretch of the coast.

In addition, around 1.4 million Palestinians, or more than half of the 2.3 million residents of Gaza, are currently crowded into the southern city of Rafah, on the border with Egypt. And now Israel is preparing an assault on Rafah in the teeth of opposition from the US and other members of the international community.

An all-out assault on Rafah would surely pressure Palestinian refugees to flee into Egypt. Another likely effect would be to further inflame the Palestinian issue, which began when 750,000 people were driven from their homes in Palestine during the First Arab-Israeli War following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Netanyahu’s coalition government has been intrinsically vulnerable to far-right figures such as Ben-Gvir since its formation in late 2022. Netanyahu’s Likud Party only holds 32 of 120 seats in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), which means his coalition cannot be sustained without the allegiance of far-right parties such as Otzma Yehudit, which is led by Ben-Gvir.

Furthermore, support for Netanyahu as prime minister is below 20%. According to a poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute in January, just 15% of Israelis want him to remain in power following the war in Gaza. In other words, the end of the war would also mean the end of Netanyahu’s premiership.

For the far-right groups who think the war should be taken as an excuse to reoccupy Gaza, deport the Palestinian population and build Jewish settlements there, that’s plenty of reason to partner with Netanyahu to continue the war.

Now in its fifth month, the war in Gaza shows no signs of ending. Instead, the entire Middle East is being swept into the conflict as US troops clash with pro-Iranian militant groups in Syria and Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen battle allied forces in the Red Sea.

In effect, Israel’s far-right forces are partly culpable for the various conflicts that are engulfing the Middle East.

By Jung E-gil, senior staff writer

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