Could Israel Carry Out Another Nakba?

Expulsionist sentiment is common in Israeli society and politics. To ignore the warning signs is to abdicate responsibility.

Peter Beinart
April 19, 2023

Palestinians carry their belongings after Israeli forces demolished two Palestinian houses in the West Bank village of Duma, near the city of Nablus, February 2nd, 2023.

Wahaj Bani Moufleh/Activestills

When officials in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government explain why they’re so eager to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court, they often cite the limitations it places on their ability to punish Palestinians. “If I want to demolish terrorists’ houses, who is in my way?” thundered Likud Knesset member Tali Gottlieb at a March 27th pro-government rally. “Who’s stopping me from revoking the rights of terrorists’ families?” To each question, the crowd replied: “The Supreme Court.” When his turn came at the podium, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir initiated a similar call and response. “When we came to offer the law for the death penalty for terrorists, who stood against it?” “When we submitted a bill to give soldiers immunity, who stood against it?” The crowd screamed: “The Supreme Court.”

When Palestinians explain the current government’s agenda, however, many describe the policies advanced by Gottlieb and Ben-Gvir as part of a larger strategy: mass expulsion. In early March, Palestinian anti-occupation activist Fadi Quran told me he felt “like we are at the cusp of another Nakba”—the term that denotes the expulsion of roughly 750,000 Palestinians at Israel’s birth. Last December, when the pollster Khalil Shikaki asked Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to characterize Israel’s “long run aspiration,” 65% chose “extending the borders of the state of Israel to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expelling its Arab citizens” (emphasis mine).

In mainstream American political discourse, such a prospect seems unthinkable. US government officials don’t acknowledge Palestinian fears of another Nakba. They more often treat Palestinians as a people that would be on route to independence if only they avoided “unhelpful” actions—like demanding international pressure on Israel— that leave them “further away from a two-state solution.” But when Palestinians claim that Israel’s long term goal is not Palestinian statehood but Palestinian expulsion, they aren’t hallucinating. Expulsion is deeply rooted in Zionist history, and the sentiment pervades Israel today, including among politicians and commentators generally viewed as centrists. Israel’s current defense minister, national security advisor, and agriculture minister—members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud party—have all alluded to removing Palestinians from the country. While the pace of Palestinian expulsion has waxed and waned in the 75 years since Israel’s war of independence, there is reason to worry that the radicalism of Israel’s current government, combined with rising violence in the West Bank, could turn the current trickle into a flood.

Another Nakba is possible. By pretending it isn’t, American officials conveniently avoid an uncomfortable but vital question: What would they do to try and stop it?

Another Nakba is possible. By pretending it isn’t, American officials conveniently avoid an uncomfortable but vital question: What would they do to try and stop it?

To understand how mainstream the idea of ethnically cleansing Palestinians is in contemporary Israeli society, it helps to understand how mainstream it has been in Zionist history. The Nakba of 1948 was not an accident forced upon the Zionist movement by Palestinian rejectionism and Arab invasion. It was the answer to a problem that had bedeviled political Zionists since the movement’s birth: how to create a Jewish state in a territory largely populated by Arabs. As early as 1895, Theodor Herzl confided to his diary, “We shall try to spirit the penniless [native] populations across the border by procuring employment for them in the transit countries.” In his influential book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, the Israeli historian Benny Morris writes that in the 1920s and 1930s, as it became clear that Arabs would resist Jewish sovereignty and the British would sooner or later restrict Jewish immigration, “a consensus or near-consensus formed among the Zionist leaders around the idea of transfer as the natural, efficient and even moral solution to the demographic dilemma.” In 1938, David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, declared, “I support compulsory transfer.” The following year his chief rival, revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, concurred that “the Arabs must make room for the Jews in Eretz Israel. If it was possible to transfer the Baltic peoples it is also possible to move the Palestinian Arabs.”

When establishment American Jewish groups blame Arab and Palestinian leaders for having brought the Nakba on themselves by rejecting the United Nations’ 1947 partition proposal, they overlook the fact that because Arabs constituted roughly two-thirds of the population of mandatory Palestine, they would have comprised roughly half of the people inside even the territory allocated for a Jewish state. Ensuring a large Jewish majority required their expulsion—a process that began months before the Arab governments declared war. It is for this reason that even Morris, who unlike some other historians does not believe the Zionist leadership formulated a specific expulsion plan, admits that “Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst.”

This essential logic—a Jewish state should include as much territory and as few Palestinians as possible—did not end with Israel’s creation in 1948. In his book Israel’s Border Wars, Morris cites an Israeli Foreign Ministry estimate that the nascent Jewish state expelled roughly 17,000 Bedouins between 1949 and 1953, either because they were alleged to have attacked Israeli troops or because they were encroaching on land and water coveted by Jews. When Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, it expelled several hundred thousand Palestinians to Jordan. As Al Quds University’s Munir Nusseibeh has detailed, Israel’s leaders were particularly intent on removing Palestinians from areas they considered strategically or politically significant: East Jerusalem, the Latrun salient (a sliver of land south of the Israeli city of Modi’in where the West Bank protrudes into Israel proper), and the Jordan Valley, which after the war formed Israel’s new border with Jordan. As Ariel Sharon, who commanded Israeli troops in 1967 before entering politics, later acknowledged, “For several years after the Six-Day War, assistance was given to Arabs who wished to emigrate from here.”

But despite these expulsions, Israel still controlled the lives of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Israel proper. And in the half-century since, prominent Israeli and diaspora Jews have repeatedly suggested that the Jewish state would be safer and more cohesive if they could be induced to leave. Although journalists often associate such calls with right-wing extremists like Rabbi Meir Kahane, many mainstream figures have endorsed the idea as well. As early as 1968, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson reportedly advised confidants that “Israel should have told the Arabs [in the 1967 war] to leave and go across the border into Jordan.” In 2004, Benny Morris, the same historian who gained fame documenting Israel’s expulsions in 1948, announced that Israel might need to finish the job. “The Israeli Arabs are a time bomb,” he told journalist Ari Shavit. “In both demographic and security terms they are liable to undermine the state. So that if Israel again finds itself in a situation of existential threat, as in 1948, it may be forced to act as it did then.” Two years later, Effi Eitam, a former brigadier general who served as minister of national infrastructure and then minister of housing and construction under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was even more direct: “We’ll have to expel the overwhelming majority of West Bank Arabs from here and remove Israeli Arabs from the political system.” In 2009, Daniel Gordis, one of Israel’s most prominent English-language commentators, suggested in his book Saving Israel that “perhaps some accommodation could be made with the countries bordering Israel (Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and eventually Palestine) to take in Israel’s Arabs.” That same year, the politician Avigdor Lieberman ran for the Knesset on a platform of stripping Israel’s Palestinian citizens of their citizenship unless they pledged loyalty to a Jewish state. Lieberman, who is now widely considered a political moderate for his opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans, went on to become foreign and defense minister. These pundits and politicians are not ideological outliers. Their views enjoy widespread public support. In 2017, Shikaki asked Israeli Jews whether “Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in Judea and Samaria should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Forty percent said yes. In three other polls, which asked similar questions between 2015 and 2016, expulsionist sentiment ranged between 32% and 58%.

In the last half-century since, prominent Israeli and diaspora Jews have repeatedly suggested that the Jewish state would be safer and more cohesive if Palestinians could be induced to leave.

Despite this, Israel has in recent decades carried out only smaller expulsions—nothing on the scale of 1948 or 1967. According to the Israeli human rights group HaMoked, between the start of the occupation in 1967 and the Oslo Accords in 1994, Israeli policies that prevented Palestinians who left the West Bank and Gaza Strip from returning forced roughly 9,000 Palestinians per year into permanent exile. Similar policies have continued since Oslo in East Jerusalem, where—according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem—Israel has revoked the residency of roughly 14,000 Palestinians since 1967.

But there are reasons to fear that these numbers could rise dramatically. Last month, Michael Barnett, a professor of international affairs and political science at George Washington University, observed that the United Nations lists a series of “risk factors” for genocide and “lesser” forms of organized violence in a given country. Among these risk factors are serious human rights violations, systematic discrimination against a vulnerable group, widespread attacks on civilians, and the motive and capacity to commit broader atrocities. “Israel ticks all the boxes,” he observed.

One key risk factor, Barnett noted, is “situations of armed conflict.” It is no coincidence that Israel’s two largest expulsions, in 1948 and 1967, occurred during war. Whether in Israel-Palestine, the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or northern Ethiopia today, war enables ethnic cleansing. It provides an excuse for governments to deport civilians and deny access to journalists and international observers who might document what’s happening on the ground. War also radicalizes populations. As the scholars Ifat Maoz and Roy Eidelson have noted, Israeli Jewish support for expulsion spiked during the First Intifada of the late 1980s, declined after it ended, then rose again with the Second Intifada in the early 2000s.

The chances of a third intifada look greater today than they have in almost two decades. According to the United Nations, Israel killed more Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2022 than in any year since 2006, when the Second Intifada was winding down. This year, the number of Palestinian fatalities is on course to be even higher. After visiting Israel in February, CIA Director William Burns warned that another intifada could break out soon.

Israel has responded brutally to uprisings before. But no Israeli government in recent decades has included so many top officials who have publicly flirted with the idea of mass expulsion. For Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister, who oversees civilian administration in the West Bank, Palestinian emigration is essential to solving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. In 2017 he laid out what he called a “decisive plan” in which West Bank Palestinians would be offered a choice. Those who agreed to “forgo their national aspirations”—in other words, abandon the demand for either a Palestinian state or citizenship in Israel—would be permitted to stay in the West Bank as stateless non-citizens. Those who maintained such demands would “receive aid to emigrate.”

Although the plan covers only Palestinians in the West Bank, Smotrich has repeatedly suggested that Palestinian citizens of Israel who challenge Jewish supremacy should meet a similar fate. In April 2021, in a tweet addressed to Palestinian Knesset Member Ahmad Tibi, Smotrich declared that “a true Muslim must know that the Land of Israel belongs to the People of Israel, and over time Arabs like you who do not recognize this will not stay here.” That fall he told his Palestinian colleagues in the Knesset that they were “here by mistake—because Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and throw you out in 1948.”

“Smotrich wants to cause another Palestinian Nakba—for him, escalation is a desirable thing.”

It’s not hard to imagine Smotrich interpreting another Palestinian uprising as evidence that thousands if not millions of Palestinians actively retain “national aspirations,” and must therefore be offered assistance in leaving the country. As opposition leader Benny Gantz acknowledged in February, “Smotrich wants to cause another Palestinian Nakba—for him, escalation is a desirable thing.” It would presumably also be desirable for Ben-Gvir, who last year proposed creating a ministry to “promote immigration” among Palestinians “who want to eliminate the Jewish state.” And like Smotrich, Ben-Gvir does not restrict this vision to Palestinians in the West Bank. During the 2022 campaign, his campaign erected billboards that read “May our enemies be banished” below photos of Knesset members from Palestinian parties.

It would be comforting to believe that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are anomalies whose views enjoy little currency in a government led by members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ostensibly more moderate Likud Party. But several of the government’s top Likud ministers have signaled their openness to mass expulsion as well. Avi Dichter, Israel’s current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, is a pillar of the Israeli security establishment. Over the past two decades he has led the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, served as public security minister under centrist prime minister Ehud Olmert and completed a fellowship at Washington’s prestigious Brookings Institution. In 2007, in response to news that Palestinian citizens were boycotting Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, he warned that, “Whoever cries of the Nakba year after year, shouldn’t be surprised if they actually have a Nakba eventually.”

Among Dichter’s Likud colleagues is Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s National Security Advisor. Like Dichter, Hanegbi has worked not only in right-wing coalitions but relatively centrist ones like Sharon’s, which dismantled Israeli settlements in Gaza. Unlike Smotrich, who Biden administration officials have refused to meet, Hanegbi is considered a respectable interlocutor in Washington; he met Secretary of State Antony Blinken last month. But Hanegbi has threatened mass expulsion as well. “This is how a ‘Nakba’ begins. Just like this. Remember ’48. Remember ’67,” he wrote on Facebook after Palestinians murdered three Israeli civilians in the West Bank in 2017. “When you want to stop it all it will already be gone. It will already be after the third ‘Nakba.’” Then there’s Yoav Gallant, who Benjamin Netanyahu recently fired then reinstated as defense minister. “Seventy-four years ago your leaders within the state of Israel dragged you into a war that resulted in a mass exodus from Israel,” he lectured Palestinians in a speech last year. He then warned that if they “cross the red line . . . the price will be high.”

“This is how a ‘Nakba’ begins. Just like this. Remember ’48. Remember ’67.”

It’s impossible to know how mass expulsion might occur. But one clue lies in the coalition agreements that lay out the current government’s agenda. The agreements call on the government to launch a process of land registration in the West Bank. While that sounds technical, its potential ramifications are immense. Because many West Bank Palestinians possess documents from the Jordanian, British Mandate, or even Ottoman eras—which do not meet Israel’s legal criteria—and because they lack access to the databases that could confirm their ownership, a land registration process would likely result in Israel declaring that many Palestinians do not own the land on which they live. Their land would then become the property of the Israeli state, which could dole it out to settlers. In a joint analysis of the coalition agreements, the progressive Israeli NGOs Yesh Din, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Ofek concluded that land registration “is expected to dispossess Palestinians of property rights on a colossal scale.”

Once stripped of their property rights, many Palestinians would become like the villagers of Masafer Yatta and Khan al-Ahmar, who have been declared illegal squatters, their homes slated for demolition. When I asked the Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard how he thought such a process might play out, he suggested that Smotrich and his allies hope to impose enough pressure on Palestinians to convince many of them to leave. “The idea is to put in place coercive measures that would drive people out of the country,” he explained.

How would Israel react if Palestinians instead mounted large-scale resistance? Would it back down or resort to more coercive measures? It’s impossible to know. But there is one final factor that makes mass expulsion more likely: The Israeli government’s belief that it can get away with it. In 2001, Netanyahu boasted, in a secretly recorded conversation, that “America is a thing you can move very easily.” Nothing in subsequent decades has given him reason to reconsider. As prime minister, he has vowed never to remove another settlement, awarded top ministries to crude racists like Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and overseen what former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer recently called “a pattern of Israel reneging on commitments to the United States,” which he deemed “extraordinary.” Despite all this, America continues to provide Israel essentially unconditional financial and diplomatic support. Presidents of both parties refuse to enforce laws barring US aid from being used to violate human rights, and relentlessly obstruct efforts to investigate and condemn Israeli abuses in international forums.

Nothing in Joe Biden’s record suggests he will change this. As a presidential candidate, he called imposing human rights conditions on aid to Israel “absolutely outrageous.” As recently as March 20th, just weeks after the pogrom against Palestinians in the West Bank town of Huwara, his spokesperson answered a question about conditioning aid by reiterating the administration’s “ironclad support for Israel’s security.” (Buttressing Biden’s stance are establishment American Jewish organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, which recently called its support for Israel “unconditional and eternal.”) Given America’s record over the last 30 years, there’s little reason to believe there is anything Israel could do to Palestinians that would lead establishment Democrats, let alone Republicans, to oppose US aid to Israel, endorse resolutions against it at the United Nations, or support prosecuting its officials at the International Criminal Court.

In July 2015, several weeks after Donald Trump announced that he was running for president, then-Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison warned that Trump might win. “Anybody from the Democratic side of the fence who is terrified of the possibility of President Trump,” Ellison declared on ABC’s Sunday talk show, This Week, “better vote, better get active, better get involved, because this man has got some momentum.” The other panelists burst out laughing. “I know you don’t believe that,” chided host George Stephanopoulos. But Ellison—the show’s only Black guest—wasn’t joking. “Stranger things have happened,” he insisted.

When Ellison warned his fellow panelists that Americans who wanted to stop Trump needed to “get active,” he was drawing a connection between political imagination and political responsibility. Assuming that another Nakba is impossible allows US officials to avoid asking themselves what they would do to try to prevent it. Which is convenient, because the answer to that question, based on current evidence, is: Not much at all.

Correction: An earlier version of this essay suggested that Herzl’s diary entry about native transfer alluded specifically to the Arab population of Palestine. While the Israeli historian Benny Morris assumes Herzl was referring to Arabs, other historians such as Anita Shapira suggest that the passage was indeterminate, as Herzl "had not yet decided whether the land for future Jewish settlement should be Palestine or Argentina.” As Harvard historian Derek Penslar, author of "Herzl and the Palestinian Arabs: Myth and Counter-Myth” in the Journal of Israeli History explained to Peter Beinart in an email, "In the passage in question, it’s not clear if he was referring to Argentina, Palestine, or anywhere else, because in June 1895, he had not made any territorial decisions. But it definitely was about removal of natives.” To reflect this ambiguity, we have changed the bracketed word in the quote from “Arabs” to “natives."

Peter Beinart is the editor-at-large of Jewish Currents.