As the reported death toll of the Israeli invasion of Gaza tops 22,000, senior Israeli politicians have grown more explicit in their goal for the Palestinian enclave: the movement of a large number of Gazans out of Gaza entirely.
The rhetoric has garnered charges of ethnic cleansing and forced displacement, and a rare rebuke from U.S. officials. But there are no signs of the calls losing steam within Israel.
“What needs to be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage emigration,” Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Sunday. Referring to Gaza as a “ghetto,” he added: “If in Gaza there will be 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs and not 2 million, the entire conversation on ‘the day after’ will look different.”
The following day, Smotrich referred to the Jewish settlement of the territory as “important” and said Palestinians should be encouraged to leave the Gaza Strip.
The idea of expelling ― or encouraging the “voluntary” migration of ― Palestinians from Gaza, once a fringe view held by extremists like Meir Kahane, has become normalized in Israeli society since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that resulted in the deaths of some 1,200 Israelis and the abduction of 240 more, according to Israeli officials.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said Monday that the current war presented an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza.” Such a policy, he added, was “a correct, just, moral and humane solution.”
And last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told one lawmaker who’d called for “voluntary immigration” from Gaza that he was working to facilitate that movement.
“Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it,” Netanyahu said. One unnamed senior source in Israel’s security cabinet (Smotrich and Ben Gvir are both members) told Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, “Congo will be willing to take in migrants, and we’re in talks with others.”
Israeli military action has already forcibly displaced the vast majority of the population within Gaza, which itself consists mostly of Palestinians who used to live elsewhere in what is now the state of Israel. Throughout the recent bombardment and invasion of Gaza, Israel has repeatedly urged civilians to move further south within the territory ― only to strike those areas as well. Infrastructure in Gaza, from homes to bakeries to hospitals, has been devastated, and the territory faces widespread medical need and looming famine. “The bottom line is that, in Gaza, pretty much everybody is hungry at the moment,” Arif Husain, the chief economist at the United Nations World Food Program, told The New Yorker recently.
Some in Israel ― including parliamentarian Ram Ben Barak, co-author of a Wall Street Journal opinion article calling for international “relocation programs” for tens of thousands of Gazans ― have stressed that their proposals would be voluntary. But Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, featuring what President Joe Biden last month called “indiscriminate bombing,” has left few safe options left for Gazans wishing to remain in the territory, which is about the size of Philadelphia.
In that context, critics say, “voluntary” migration amounts to illegal forced displacement.
“It’s so cynical to call it ‘voluntary migration,’” Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, told Democracy Now on Friday. She added: “It’s forced displacement. It’s a crime against humanity … . It should be stopped. It’s shocking to see the silence of the international community in the face of these unfathomable ideas.”
Also last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met and “reiterated their complete rejection of all attempts to liquidate the Palestinian issue and forcibly displace Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” according to Jordan News Agency. And on Wednesday, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, condemned Ben Gvir and Smotrich’s comments, writing, “Forced displacements are strictly prohibited as a grave violation of [international humanitarian law] & words matter.”
“It’s so cynical to call it ‘voluntary migration.’ It’s forced displacement.”
– Francesca Albanese, U.N. special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories
The Biden administration, Israel’s chief ally and weapons supplier, showed no signs of cutting off arms sales to Israel due to the “migration” rhetoric, even though the calls were at odds with U.S. priorities for the region. On Friday, the State Department announced that it had yet again circumvented Congress to sell Israel roughly $147.5 million worth of 155-millimeter artillery shells and related components.
Still, U.S. officials did condemn the language: Matthew Miller, a State Department spokesperson, said Tuesday that the U.S. “rejects” the statements from Ben Gvir and Smotrich, calling the rhetoric “inflammatory and irresponsible.” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, amplified that sentiment with a statement of her own.
But the statements appeared weak to some observers. “I wonder which speaks louder,” former State Department lawyer Brian Finucane observed: “[The State Department] continuing to authorize US arms transfers to Israel, including the 155mm artillery shells approved via emergency procedures on Friday” or “issuing sternly worded statements.”
Israeli politicians quickly answered the question. “I really admire the United States of America but with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag,” Ben Gvir said, adding: “The emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow residents [of the border area] to return home and live in security and protect [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers.”
Smotrich, for his part, referenced a poll that he said indicated “more than 70% of the Israeli public today supports a humanitarian solution of encouraging the voluntary immigration of Gaza Arabs and their absorption in other countries.” Smotrich did not say where the figure came from, though at least one recent poll showed similar figures. (In 2016, Jewish Currents noted recently, a Pew poll found that almost half of Israeli Jews either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.”)
They’re not alone: Israel’s intelligence minister and several members of the Israeli Knesset have also called for the international community to take in Gazans via “voluntary” migration. Some Israeli politicians have also explicitly called for the re-establishment of Israeli settlements in Gaza, another idea that has gained steam since Oct. 7. (Israel withdrew its settlers from the Strip in 2005.) And one recent Jerusalem Post opinion piece, by an Israeli geographer, referred to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as “an ideal location to develop a spacious resettlement for the people of Gaza.” Gazan objections to such a plan, the geographer Joel Roskin argued, can be chalked up to “their desire to destroy Israel.”
Historian William Dalrymple observed, “Open calls for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians of Gaza are becoming ever more frequent in Israel. The Palestinians have been reduced to subhumans, to be shot, starved, dispossessed, subjugated, tortured, bombed, abused and expelled with barely a shrug.”
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher