Israeli Grandmother Aims to Guide Return to a Palestinian-Free Gaza Strip: CNN Report

Israeli Grandmother Aims to Guide Return to a Palestinian-Free Gaza Strip: CNN Report

‘That sounds like ethnic cleansing’: Clarissa Ward questions lead figure in settler movement


Karnai Shomron, West Bank
CNN
 — 

The message went out the day before on several WhatsApp groups: A chance to meet Daniella Weiss, the godmother of the Zionist settler movement, for an informational session on the reestablishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza after the war.

By the time the evening’s host had put out freshly baked chocolate babka for the 20 guests circled in her living room in the Karnai Shomron settlement in the West Bank, Weiss was already well into her pitch.

But her audience needed little convincing. They were true believers with deep nostalgia for Gush Katif, even if some were too young to have been able to remember it existing. The bloc of 21 Israeli settlements was forcibly evacuated by the Israel Defense Forces in 2005 when Israel left the Gaza Strip.

“Register, register. You’ll be in Gaza,” Weiss said with an intense gaze, the 78-year-old telling her audience she is absolutely convinced it will happen in her lifetime.

Any such land grab from the Palestinians would be illegal under international law, impractical and likely to engender global outrage against Israel.

Daniella Weiss, the 78-year-old godmother of the settler movement, says she is certain Jews will return to live in Gaza in her lifetime.

Weiss said 500 families have already signed up to resettle through her organization Nachala, whose name means “inheritance.” One of Nachala’s members told the group they were sending a representative to Florida to raise money for the cause.  Nachala already receives support from groups in the US, including Americans for a Safe Israel, even as the Biden administration strengthens its opposition to settlements in the West Bank.

Of the more than a dozen organizations now pushing for re-establishing settlements in Gaza, Weiss’ Nachala is the best known. She comes from the original generation of settlers and has been leading the movement for decades.

Weiss projects the image of a charismatic grandmother, her hair wrapped and her face seeming kind around that direct gaze, as she delivers her message with devout conviction. But at their core, her ideas are rooted in beliefs of Jewish exceptionalism and her policies have no room for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian strife.

Projected on the wall during Weiss’ presentation was her vision of post-war Gaza, a map with six nucleus groups laying claim to settlements spanning the entire length and width of the strip. There were no areas for the two million or so Palestinians who call it home now and who have seen lives, homes and communities devastated by the ongoing war, sparked by Hamas’ massacre of Israeli citizens last October 7.

A Jewish audience listens to Weiss urging them to sign up to be the first to re-establish Jewish settlements in Gaza.

Weiss was blunt in her wishes for Gaza when CNN interviewed her at her home in the West Bank settlement of  Kedumim, where she was once mayor.

“No Arab, I’m speaking about more than two million Arabs. They will not stay there,” Weiss said. “We Jews will be in Gaza.”

We said that sounded like ethnic cleansing.

Weiss responded: “The Arabs want to annihilate the state of Israel so you can call them monsters. You can call them cleansing of Jews. We are not doing to them; they are doing to us.”

Weiss said a return to Gaza became a priority for her after the October 7 attacks. Her views, traditionally seen as extreme in Israel, have become more popular since that day.

A poll in January from The Jewish People Policy Institute found that 26% of Israelis advocate for the reconstruction of the Gush Katif settlements after the war is over. Among supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government, the number jumps to 51% compared to 3% for supporters of the opposition.

Late that month, jubilant crowds packed an auditorium in Jerusalem for the “Victory of Israel” conference calling for the resettlement of Gaza.

Weiss was a speaker at the conference, along with her settlement neighbor and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Israel's Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu forcefully rejected an assertion that it would be illegal, immoral and detrimental to Israel's standing to seize land in Gaza.

Also in attendance was Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu. In an interview with CNN, Eliyahu spelled out his support for Weiss’ vision of post-war Gaza, even when challenged strongly. Here is an excerpt:

Minister Amihai Eliyahu: The language of the land says that wherever there is a Jewish settlement there will be more security. Doesn’t mean there will be absolute security, but there will be more security.

Clarissa Ward, CNN Chief International Correspondent: Why would you advocate for something that many would say is illegal, is immoral, is not supported by the majority of Israelis and is also very harmful to Israel in terms of its international standing?

Minister Amihai Eliyahu: Why do you think it is immoral to take land from someone who wants to kill me? Why is it immoral to take my land, which my ancestors lived there, which I have even given up, to someone who slaughters, rapes and murders me? What is more immoral than that?”

Netanyahu has called resettling Gaza “an unrealistic goal” but he has stopped short of ruling out the possibility altogether and the far-right members of his coalition, on whose support his political survival depends, remain emboldened.

There are many different factions in Zionism, which – at its simplest – is support for Jewish people having an independent state in Israel. And also getting louder are the opponents of enlarging illegal settlements.

Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni, at a protest against Netanyahu's policies, said it was a minority of Israelis who wanted to go back to Gaza, but they were strong politically.

At the latest of the now weekly anti-government protests in central Tel Aviv, thousands again marched down Kaplan Street, blocking traffic along major intersections, demonstrating against Netanyahu’s coalition.

“I think the majority of the people don’t think that going back to Gaza is a good idea,” Tel Aviv University professor Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni told CNN at the protest.

“I think that this is still a minority, but this is still politically a very strong minority. And this is the problem.”

For Weiss and many supporters of the settler movement, what was once a distant fantasy is now a fervent dream.

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