Israel “must not” engage in the “mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller insisted on Wednesday afternoon at a briefing with reporters.
Miller’s remark followed earlier statements from him as well as from U.S. ambassador to the United States Linda Thomas-Greenfield, both of whom issued identical remarks Tuesday, saying, “There should be no mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.” The statements were issued in response to public comments from Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both of whom made clear the end goal of the assault on Gaza is to push out much of the Palestinian population and build Israeli settlements.
Because the U.S. has repeatedly insisted that Israel “should” take a variety of steps that it has refused to take — allow sufficient humanitarian aid into Gaza, take efforts to reduce civilian casualties, and so on — the repeated use of the word, “should” raised questions about how firm the U.S. opposition to mass displacement really is. Asked why the statements weren’t more definitive, Miller amended his remark. “There must not be,” he said Wednesday.
Ben-Gvir on Tuesday fired back at the U.S. with an extraordinary response. “Really appreciate the United States of America but with all due respect we are not another star on the American flag,” Ben-Gvir posted on Twitter in Hebrew. “The United States is our best friend, but first of all we will do what is best for the State of Israel: The emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will enable the residents of the [Gaza] envelope to return home and live in safety, and will protect the soldiers of the IDF.”
Smotrich also doubled down, saying that mass emigration of Palestinians to foreign countries was still desirable because “a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where four minutes away from our communities there is a hotbed of hatred and terrorism, where two million people wake up every morning with aspiration for the destruction of the State of Israel and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews wherever they are.”
Asked about the blunt response, Miller said the “doubling down” was unsurprising. “The point of the statement I made yesterday was that the comments that Ben-Gvir and Minister Smotrich have made are in direct contradiction of Israeli government policy as has been represented to us by multiple Israeli government officials including the prime minister himself,” he said. “So I’m not surprised that he continues to double down and make those statements, but they are not only in contradiction with United States policy and what we think is in the best interests of the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, the broader region and ultimately civility in the world, but they are in direct contradiction of his own government’s policy and we believe those statements should stop.”
Whatever Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told the U.S. government privately, his public remarks suggest that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are not out of line with Israeli government policy. “Regarding voluntary emigration, I have no problem with that,” Netanyahu told Likud Knesset Member Danny Danon, after Danon had previously floated the controversial idea. “Our problem is not allowing the exit, but a lack of countries that are ready to take Palestinians in. And we are working on it. This is the direction we are going in.”
The Times of Israel reported this week that Israel was in negotiations with Congo to deport Palestinians there, though Israeli officials have called the report inaccurate.
Turkey on Wednesday joined South Africa and Malaysia in pursing charges of genocide against Israel in the International Court of Justice. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby called the charges “meritless, counterproductive, and completely without any basis in fact whatsoever.”
Miller, asked by The Intercept if U.S. officials were concerned about getting roped into the prosecution due to support of Israel’s war effort, said there were no such worries.
“No, I will say as it relates to the State Department we have been committed to addressing the humanitarian situation in Gaza and have made a priority of preventing, as I just said in response to your question, the displacement of Palestinians. I will also say that of course genocide is a heinous atrocity,” he said. “Those are allegations that should not be made lightly, and as it pertains to the United States, we are not seeing any acts that constitute genocide.”