Israeli settlers hold Independence Day barbecues as Gaza burns

Celebrations take place at hilltop rally, with music, speakers and food

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On the eve of Nakba Day, people in the Israeli city of Sderot called for Palestinians to be expelled from Gaza.

Thousands of Israeli settlers marched through the quiet, evacuated southern town, less than a kilometre from the besieged enclave. The event was orchestrated by far-right groups, with backing from settler organisations advocating the repopulation of Gaza, coupled with the forced displacement of its Palestinian residents.

On Israeli Independence Day, people of all ages carried flags as they made their way to a hilltop rally of music, speakers and food – overlooking the Gaza Strip.

Gaza and the West Bank are considered occupied Palestinian territories under international law.

When the Israeli military left Gaza in 2005, 9,000 settlers were withdrawn from the enclave. This movement hopes for a return to these now Palestinian villages, in addition to the creation of new settlements. For many, they believe this will make Israel safer.

“If there will be no Jewish settlements in Gaza, there will be no safety,” said Matan, a resident of the Peduel settlement in the West Bank. “The fighting in Gaza is the beginning of getting us back to Gaza.”

The Nakba, or “catastrophe”, refers to the mass expulsion of Palestinians when Israel was formed in 1948. As 700,000 Palestinians were driven or fled from their homes, comparisons continue to be made to the current situation in Gaza. The event is commemorated every year on May 15.

Seventy-six years on, Nakba refugees and their descendants constitute three quarters of the population in Gaza.

While some settlers, including Matan, believe the Palestinians should be forcibly removed, others, like Irit from Jerusalem, support some form of coexistence.

“If they are not our enemies, they want to live in peace, they want to be a citizen in the Jewish state – then they are more than welcome” she said.

Israeli Knesset member Amit Halevi gave his political support to the movement, advocating full Israeli control from a security perspective.

“Gaza was a laboratory for 17 years, and you see what happened. So the only solution is to go back to our homeland and to have full control of the Gaza Strip," he said.

The Israeli politician argued that the resettlement of Gaza will protect not only Israel, as well as western interests. “We want to return to Gaza because we want to save Washington and we want to save Paris," he added.

On the other side of the country, near Haifa, 3,000 people joined the annual march commemorating the Nakba. One of the few Palestinian demonstrations permitted in Israel, calls were also made for an end to the war in Gaza.

Marchers in Sderot were reminded of the fighting as sirens started to wail. Hundreds dropped to the ground, while others ran for shelter. As the march was halted by the rockets, children sobbed and family members embraced each other.

Sirens are an anomaly for many of the 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank. It is an area where settlements are on the rise, as well as violent attacks.

On Monday, reports emerged of settlers ransacking Gaza-bound aid lorries at a crossing between the West Bank and Israel. This is part of an continuing issue that is hindering aid efforts, according to an investigation by The National.

Mr Halevi said the move to block aid was “very important”. “The aid is entering to Gaza and who takes it is the Hamas.”

Although organisers claimed 50,000 were in attendance, the movement remains a small faction in Israeli society. A recent Hebrew University survey suggests that more than half of Israelis oppose these efforts to resettle Gaza.

Although it is not Israeli government policy, far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir endorsed the event with a late afternoon appearance on stage at the rally.

He was met with adoration from the crowd – young girls were seen blowing kisses, as others live streamed from their phones.

Addressing the rally, the war cabinet member called for voluntary Palestinian expulsion, encouraging immigration as a “moral, rational and humanitarian solution”.

The minister was joined by other leading figures, including Daniella Weiss of The Nachala Settler Movement, an organisation with a history of illegal settlement activity in the West Bank.

At the “Settlement Brings Security” conference in January, Ms Weiss presented plans for the new settlements in the Gaza Strip – some on top of existing Palestinian towns.

She repeated her message from January. “It's the end of the presence of Arabs in Gaza. It's the end.”

Historical accounts suggest that Sderot was built on the land of Najd, a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948. Today, it overlooks Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians have been continually displaced, as Israeli troops press on with the Rafah incursion.

As the hilltop celebration continued into the late afternoon, the sky cleared, bringing into focus the huge plumes of smoke rising from the fighting around Jabalia refugee camp – home to many Palestinian refugees from 1948.

Israeli families chose this spot to ignite their barbecues, a customary ritual on Independence Day. Grilling to the backdrop of a burning Gaza.

Updated: May 15, 2024, 3:44 PM