Want to understand the political mood in an increasingly militant Israel? Meet Moshe Feiglin, a West Bank settler who is one of eight deputy speakers of the Israeli Knesset, a rising force in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party -- and a proponent of flat-out conquering the Gaza Strip, sending its Arab inhabitants to the Egyptian desert and repopulating it with Jewish citizens.
"Gaza is part of our Land and we will remain there forever," Feiglin wrote last week in an op-ed for the right-leaning Arutz Sheva website, a popular news source for Israel's settlers. "Liberation of parts of our land forever is the only thing that justifies endangering our soldiers in battle to capture land. Subsequent to the elimination of terror from Gaza, it will become part of sovereign Israel and will be populated by Jews."
Apart from the logic that says Gaza must be reclaimed because it is Jewish land, Feiglin saw another compelling reason for why the small area must be controlled by Israel and not its resident Palestinians: The move "will also serve to ease the housing crisis in Israel."
He came to these conclusions after laying out a six-step plan for a full-scale Israeli takeover of Gaza. "The limit of Israel's humanitarian efforts," he suggested, should be the issuing of an ultimatum to Gaza's residents prior to the Israel Defense Forces attack and some "generous" assistance to help them escape. "Sinai is not far from Gaza and they can leave."
Once the Gazans have been given a chance to depart, Feiglin wrote, "All the military and infrastructural targets will be attacked with no consideration for ‘human shields’ or ‘environmental damage’. ... After the IDF completes the 'softening' of the targets with its fire-power, the IDF will conquer the entire Gaza, using all the means necessary to minimize any harm to our soldiers, with no other considerations."
The latest Israeli offensive against Gaza, which began with airstrikes on July 8 and then expanded to a ground invasion on July 17, did not go per Feiglin's plan. Senior Israeli officials have said their goal is not to take over Gaza but to stem the flow of rocket attacks against Israel -- of which there have been 2,153 since July 8 -- by destroying Hamas supplies and to plug underground tunnels through which Hamas militants have entered Israeli territory. Unlike Feiglin, the senior officials have expressed concern about limiting civilian casualties, though the government describes them as unavoidable.
Some 800 Palestinians and 38 Israelis have died in the conflict thus far. The Palestinian toll includes 16 killed Thursday in an attack on a United Nations school serving as a shelter. The source of that attack remains unknown.
But even if Feiglin's invasion plan isn't being followed, his views matter. He entered the Knesset in January 2013, after 16 years of trying and 10 years of attempting to oust Netanyahu as the leader of Likud. The fact that he was placed high up on the Likud electoral slate last year reflected his far-right faction's growing power in the party -- and came as a shock to more liberal Israelis, who had been wary of Feiglin and his supporters for years. Netanyahu offered him a deputy speaker position in the legislature. And the same day he published his plan for Gaza, he was named to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. This was just four days after he used his authority as a deputy speaker to remove Arab Knesset members from the floor of the legislature for criticizing the current military operation and calling IDF soldiers "murderers."
These are big steps forward for the man who told The New Yorker in 2004 that "you can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic."
As David Remnick noted in that New Yorker story, which looked at the rise of the Israeli far-right, Feiglin speaks often about building the Third Temple -- to replace the second, destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. -- on the Temple Mount, which is also holy to Muslims and currently home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He’s also confident that the Palestinians "are a nation without a history. ... [T]he Palestinians’ self-definition isn’t for a Palestinian state but for war with the Jews."
In 2008, the British government banned Feiglin from entering the United Kingdom on the grounds that he was seeking to provoke ethnic violence.
That same year, veteran Middle East correspondent Gershom Gorenberg called Feiglin a "radical rightist" in an American Prospect profile. Gorenberg told The Huffington Post that while Feiglin's Knesset title "sounds more impressive than it is," given that eight out of 120 legislative members hold that post, Feiglin is notable because "he controls a very organized bloc of far-right voters within the Likud."
Extreme voices like Feiglin's push Israel to go even further in its assault on Gaza. They argue that the current ground invasion, framed as a limited operation, should actually be about the capture of territory. They now count among their number the foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, who told the Knesset last week that he believed it was necessary to re-occupy Gaza. Reporting on Reuven Rivlin, who was sworn in as the country's new president Thursday, suggests that he, too, believes in an eventual "Greater Israel" encompassing all land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
One public advocate for Feiglin's vision is American-born Rabbi Ben Packer, once a campus cleric for Duke University and the University of North Carolina and now the director of a center for young Jewish visitors to Israel and a fan of extending the Israeli border into Palestine. He wrote earlier this month, "Of course, we should continue to hunt all of those responsible for the rocket fire and make every effort to eliminate them -- but that's not good enough! We need a tangible victory and moving the border of the northern Gaza Strip provides us with that."
Ayelet Shaked, a far-right politician featured in Remnick’s article, is on Feiglin's side of the spectrum as well. On July 1, the day after Israeli police found the bodies of the three teenagers whose disappearance in the West Bank had elevated tensions in the region, Shaked expressed her feelings in a Facebook post. According to a translation by pro-Palestinian blog The Electronic Intifada, the post describes the entire Palestinian population as enemies of Israel.
"Actors in the war are those who incite in mosques, who write the murderous curricula for schools, who give shelter, who provide vehicles, and all those who honor and give them their moral support. They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads,” said the message that Shaked posted, which she identified as an unpublished article by the late settler leader and Netanyahu aide Uri Elitzur. “Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just.” (Shaked has attacked the interpretation of her post.)
Of course, Hamas' rhetoric about Israelis and the anti-Semitism that has bubbled up in the Muslim world and Europe over the last few weeks are equally vicious and derogatory. Such offensive language is even heard in Israel: Ibrahim Tzartzur, one of those members Feiglin threw out of the Knesset, called the deputy speaker “a fascist, a Nazi,” while security officers were hustling him out of the chamber, according to the captions in a video Feiglin posted.
But the recent barrage of belligerent and dehumanizing comments about Palestinians remains striking. They come not in a lawmaker’s moment of weakness or in a message from some internationally condemned group of fringe activists, but in essays from elected leaders of a country that touts itself as a uniquely advanced First World state in the Middle East.
On Thursday, Feiglin declared on his Facebook page, "Our soldiers are the only innocents in Gaza. Under no circumstances should they be killed because of false morality that prefers to protect enemy civilians. One hair on the head of an Israeli soldier is more precious than the entire Gazan populace, which elected the Hamas and supports and encourages anyone who murders Israelis."
This is probably not the kind of message U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wants to hear from leading Israelis during his current attempts to reach a ceasefire.
The international law blog Opinio Juris pointed to one thin silver lining in this dark cloud in a Saturday post. Kevin Jon Heller, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, wrote that the military actions Feiglin advocates wouldn't count as genocide under international law -- just as plain old war crimes and crimes against humanity.