Israel’s “Humanitarian” Expulsion

The Israeli right is capitalizing on the aftermath of October 7th to build support for a permanent transfer of Palestinians out of Gaza.

Jonathan Shamir
December 12, 2023

Palestinians leave their homes after an Israeli airstrike on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, October 30th.

Abed Rahim Khatib/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

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On November 13th, Israeli lawmaker Danny Danon from the ruling right-wing Likud party joined his colleague Ram Ben-Barak from the liberal opposition Yesh Atid party to co-author a Wall Street Journal op-ed ostensibly concerned with “help[ing] civilians caught in the crisis” in the Gaza Strip. When the article was published, Israel’s total siege and massive bombardment campaign had already claimed more than 11,000 Palestinian lives in Gaza; at least 6,700 more have been killed since. But the op-ed made no mention of the Israeli actions behind the catastrophic conditions in Gaza and did not call for them to stop. Instead, Danon and Ben-Barak prescribed a different, ostensibly humanitarian solution for Palestinians’ plight: their permanent relocation from Gaza. “The international community has a moral imperative—and an opportunity—to demonstrate compassion,” the lawmakers wrote, calling on “countries across the world to accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate.”

The op-ed testifies to the growing prominence of what was once an extremist position within Israel: the call to push the remaining Palestinians out of historic Palestine. In the 1980s and ’90s, the idea of total Palestinian expulsion—prohibited under international law—was the sole bailiwick of extremist politicians such as Rehavam Ze’evi and Rabbi Meir Kahane. The proposal was largely absent from mainstream Israeli public discourse in the subsequent decades, but has experienced a quiet resurgence that has paralleled the recent political ascendance of the Israeli far right. In 2016, a Pew survey found that almost half of Israeli Jews supported the idea that Arabs should be “expelled or transferred from Israel.” According to Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid, the far right’s success in the November 2022 election further “revived the idea of transfer.” As Israelis “increasingly feel that it’s either us or them” in the aftermath of Hamas’s October 7th attacks, Magid said, forced transfer out of Gaza, in particular, has become a live political option.

Once discussed plainly as a demographic and security strategy, the idea of expulsion is now being presented as a humanitarian response to the devastation in Gaza. Danon and Ben-Barak’s Wall Street Journal op-ed, which was accompanied with a publicity tour of TV studios in Israel and abroad, has been a prominent staging ground for this reframe. So far, the lawmakers’ call for a “moral” expulsion has been met with minimal pushback. Indeed, Danon’s claim in an MSNBC interview that the proposal would “help many families in Gaza” went completely unchallenged. Ben-Barak found similar success on Israel’s Channel 12—the country’s most watched TV station—where journalist Ohad Hamo responded to his proposal by saying that “it is the dream of every young Gazan to emigrate.” According to Magid, this repackaging of expulsion as humanitarianism has allowed the idea to take root among mainstream Israelis. Oren Persico, a journalist at the independent Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, told Jewish Currents that “transfer is a prelude for the repopulation of Gaza by Jews,” and the popularity of both ideas is rising simultaneously: According to a recent Channel 12 poll, 44% of Israelis are now supportive of reestablishing Jewish settlements in Gaza. “While Kahane is still a persona non-grata,” Magid told Jewish Currents, his “ideas have become normalized, even taking on a semblance of liberalism. This allows people to feel a sense of moral comfort with the destruction [of Gaza].”

Calls to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from the Gaza Strip began soon after Hamas’s attack. On October 13th, four small Shabbat bulletins (local newsletters)—Olam Katan, Matzav Ruach, Shvi’i, and Shabbatonpublished a joint supplement calling for the mass expulsion of Palestinians and the resettlement of Gaza by Jews. The idea soon broke into mainstream Israeli press, with right-wing journalist Erel Segal arguing in Israel Hayom, the country’s most widely distributed newspaper, that Palestinians from Gaza must be pushed into the Sinai. “On the ruins of Gaza and Rafah . . . neighborhoods, streets and squares named after the martyrs will be established. This is Jewish morality,” he wrote. But even as some on the Israeli right called for expulsion in unapologetic terms, other opinion makers began to rebrand the idea as a humanitarian stance. On November 22nd, for instance, the Shabbat supplement of the religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon published a discussion between three thinkers on how the expulsion of Palestinians was the only “moral” response to October 7th, with one contributor going so far so to say that “transferring [Gazans] to other countries is no less than humanitarian rescue from a murderous regime.”

Influential conservative think tanks such as the Misgav Institute and the Tikvah Fund have also contributed to recasting the idea of Palestinian expulsion as Israeli munificence. Since October 7th, such groups have released numerous policy papers that, in the words of Haaretz’s Nettanel Slyomovics, “redefin[e] a population transfer as a ‘moral’ act.” In his policy paper for the Misgav Institute, Likud activist and businessman Amir Weitmann argues that Israel should push for the “resettlement and humanitarian rehabilitation of the entire Arab population of the Gaza Strip” in Egypt in exchange for billions of dollars in compensation. In an article in the Tikvah Fund periodical Hashiloach entitled “The Necessary, Moral, and Possible Solution to the Palestinian Refugee Crisis: Don’t Let Them Back Into Gaza,” editor-in-chief Yoav Sorek similarly reasoned that expulsion is the only way, short of “mass killings,” to ensure that a hostile regime does not continue to exist on Israel’s border. These think tanks are closely connected to lawmakers in the Knesset; the Tikvah Fund in particular played a major role in pushing Israel’s controversial judicial overhaul. Their influence was made explicit by Weitmann, who told the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist that he had passed his Misgav Institute policy paper on expulsion to the Intelligence Ministry. Immediately after, a leaked document revealed that the Ministry was starting to consider the expulsion of Gaza’s Palestinian population to the northern Sinai as one of three potential postwar scenarios.

In the last month, a striking number of Israeli officials have endorsed the idea of expulsion, now on humanitarian grounds. On November 19th, Israel’s intelligence minister Gila Gamliel wrote a Jerusalem Post op-ed calling for “the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the Strip.” Simcha Rothman—one of the far-right ringleaders of Israel’s judicial overhaul and a close ally of the Tikvah Fund—similarly told the BBC that “any refugee in Gaza that wants a solution shouldn’t be held there . . . for political reasons.” On November 28th, Nissim Vaturi, the deputy speaker of the Knesset from the ruling Likud party, joined calls for the “voluntary transfer of the residents of Gaza and Judea and Samaria [the biblical name for the West Bank] . . . for their own good.” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has also begun using the language of “humanitarianism” to describe the expulsion proposal, which he had previously included as part of his 2017 plan to “end this conflict decisively once and for all in our favor.” These statements seem to be informing government policy. On November 30th, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Ron Dermer—a close ally in the war cabinet—to work on a proposal to relocate Palestinians to other countries. While Israel has since denied that Dermer is working on such a plan, Netanyahu has pursued the same goal independently, lobbying the European Union to demand that Egypt take in Gazan refugees. His government has also discreetly circulated a plan to condition US aid to Arab states on their acceptance of Palestinian refugees.

According to Magid, Israeli history suggests that a return to the idea of expulsion has always been “on the table as a foolproof alternative to the Arab question.” In 1948 and 1967, Israel cumulatively displaced over a million Palestinians and seized their lands. This history is particularly salient in the Gaza Strip, where 81% of residents are Palestinian refugees from within Israel. “The Gaza Strip itself is a product of Palestinian expulsion,” Anne Irfan, a historian of migration in the Middle East, told Jewish Currents. Additionally, as a focal point for Palestinian militancy, the enclave has seen repeated displacement attempts in the name of “security and self-defense.” After Israel took over the Gaza Strip in 1967, for instance, the authorities tried to deport its residents to Jordan and then to the Sinai and even the occupied West Bank. According to Irfan, then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol set up “emigration offices” in the enclave’s refugee camps and took steps to push down the standard of living in an explicit attempt to “thin out” Gaza’s population. Within just one year of these attempts, the population of the Gaza Strip fell by 13%, before Palestinian civil disobedience and militant attacks slowly ground these policies to a halt.

Despite its resurgent popularity, Persico said that the idea of expulsion “still hasn’t penetrated the heart of the mainstream.” So far, neither Israel’s international allies nor its own security establishment have officially announced the permanent expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the proposal a “non-starter,” adding that it was opposed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and “virtually every other leader,” while Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has expressed fears that such a move would turn the Sinai into “a base for launching operations against Israel” and would end up “liquidat[ing] the Palestinian cause.” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and army chief-of-staff Herzi Halevi, as well war cabinet ministers Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, reportedly view the proposal as “an unrealistic fantasy” as well as “a despicable and immoral plan.” Even Netanyahu has publicly stated that he has no intention to construct settlements in Gaza, likely due to his wariness of the costs of reoccupying the enclave. And on December 11th, after two months of pressure from Western diplomats, an Israeli government spokesperson dismissed the expulsion plans as an “outrageous and false allegation.” But according to Said Arikat, the Washington correspondent for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, such stated reservations are coming up against mounting pressure to devise postwar plans. The US’s preferred solution, Arikat said, would be the return of a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority to Gaza, something Netanyahu adamantly opposes; the prime minister has also flatly ruled out any comprehensive political solution that would involve ending the occupation of Palestinian territories. Other options—such as bringing in the United Nations or a coalition of Arab states to administer the enclave—also have limited buy-in. According to Arikat, this lack of tenable options has created a vacuum within which expulsion advocates are able to maneuver.

While expulsion has yet to become Israel’s stated goal, however, it is already becoming a reality on the ground. In the past two months, the majority of people in Gaza—1.8 million out of a population of 2.3 million—have already been displaced, some of them multiple times, and Israel’s brutal bombardment campaign is leaving them little to return to. In over two months of airstrikes, deploying 25,000 tonnes of bombs, Israel has completely destroyed Gaza City—the largest Palestinian urban center. The bombings have left over half of the housing units across the Gaza Strip uninhabitable and caused the widespread ruination of civilian infrastructure, decommissioning half of the enclave’s hospitals and destroying a fifth of its bakeries. Such moves, which inhibit any prospect of ordinary life after the war, function as a de-facto expulsion of Palestinians out of Gaza. This is the explicit military goal of expulsion advocates like Raphael Ben Levi, the head of the Tikvah Fund’s Churchill Program for Strategy, Statecraft and Security (with which Dermer is also affiliated). On October 17th, Ben Levi wrote in a position paper that “it is incumbent upon Israel to act decisively to create an unbearable situation in the Gaza Strip, such that would force other countries to help with the departure of the population—and for the US to exert heavy pressure for this end.” Persico said that the Israeli army appears to be advancing just such a strategy: “There appears to be a connection between the [expulsion] plans and the army’s operational tactics.”

For Palestinians in Gaza, Irfan says, these unlivable conditions constitute an impossible bind: While many might want to temporarily flee Gaza to seek asylum from the bombings, leaving could mean they are never allowed to return. “The people who are trapped in Gaza have the right to seek asylum elsewhere, and that right has to be protected,” Irfan said. “At the same time, we have to ensure that such a move doesn’t just facilitate another round of expulsions.” Absent such a guarantee, however, Palestinians are left in the familiar predicament of choosing between death and displacement. “We have seen this history of war being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing time and again,” Palestinian American writer and political analyst Yousef Munayyer told Time. “It’s more than just rhetoric; it’s actual history repeating itself.”

Jonathan Shamir is a Jewish Currents fellow and the former deputy editor of Haaretz.

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