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Dec
12
2023

Israel’s “Humanitarian” Expulsion

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

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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

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 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 Shabbaton—published 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.”

Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Palestinians rush to rescue injured people in the immediate aftermath of a deadly Israeli airstrike on the Salah family home in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza.

Mohammed Zaanoun/Activestills

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • Last week, social media users shared images and videos of armed Israeli soldiers in Gaza detaining hundreds of Palestinian men, who were blindfolded and stripped to their underwear. The exact provenance of the images is unclear, but according to the Times of Israel, “at least some of the photos and videos show evidence of having been taken from army positions, and some have speculated that they were intentionally leaked as part of a campaign to break the morale of Hamas’s fighters.” The images sparked widespread concern over Israeli detention procedures in Gaza and raised questions about their compliance with international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions’s prohibition on exposing prisoners of war to “public curiosity.” “These pictures are another indication of how [Israeli soldiers] are disobeying the laws of war and basic principles of humanity in an attempt to show to the Israeli public and others that they are being ‘tough,’” said Sari Bashi of Human Rights Watch in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. The US State Department called the images “deeply disturbing.” The photos and videos also raised concerns about Israel detaining civilians in Gaza. Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy told CNN that the men were all “suspected terrorists,” but according to Haaretz, only between 10% and 15% of the detained Palestinians were Hamas members. Some of the men in the videos were identified as civilians by other Palestinians; for instance, Hani Almadhoun, director of philanthropy for the US arm of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, recognized his brother in one of the photos. “My brother has seizures and they had him naked in the street and they put him on the beach in the winter, naked taking pictures of him, verifying who he is, and then they released him after they roughed him up a little bit,” Almadhoun told CNN. While some of the detainees have been released, others have since “disappeared,” with family members given no “information about the whereabouts, conditions or charges against the missing,” according to a Washington Post report.
  • The white phosphorus rounds that Israel fired at a Lebanese town in October were manufactured and supplied by the US, according to a Washington Post investigation published on Monday. The October 16th Israeli attack, which lasted for hours and trapped residents in their homes overnight, injured at least nine Lebanese civilians. When used indiscriminately in a civilian area, the firing of artillery rounds containing white phosphorus is considered a war crime, as the chemical can cause fatal burns, respiratory damage, and harm to organs. The Post investigation found that the munitions used in the attack were manufactured in Louisiana and Arkansas; under international law, the US is prohibited from knowingly selling weapons to a foreign country for use in committing war crimes. After the Post published its story, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the administration was “concerned” about Israel’s use of white phosphorus and would be “asking questions to try to learn a bit more.”
  • The sportswear company Puma announced today that it will end its controversial sponsorship of Israel’s national football team, which includes clubs based in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Puma’s decision comes after years of pressure from the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which had called on consumers to boycott the company until it canceled the sponsorship. In a statement, the company said its decision had nothing to do with BDS calls against Puma but was motivated by “business reasons.” However, the BDS National Committee, which coordinates international boycott campaigns, said that its advocacy played a major role in Puma’s decision. “The years of relentless, global BDS pressure on PUMA and the damage to its image should be a lesson to all companies supporting Israeli apartheid, that complicity has consequences,” the committee said in a statement.
  • Earlier today, the Yemen-based Houthi militant group fired a missile that hit a Norwegian-owned tanker in the Red Sea. The recent missile was only the latest of several attacks that the Iran-backed militia has carried out in recent weeks, with others including the hijacking of an Israeli-linked ship last month and multiple other missile attacks on ships in the Red Sea. The Houthis, who control wide swaths of northern Yemen, say their attacks are in response to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and have threatened to strike any vessel going to or coming from Israel, though there was no apparent connection between the Norwegian ship and Israel.
  • President Biden told a group of Democratic Party donors earlier today that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should change the make-up of his extremist right-wing governing coalition. Biden said Israel was losing support from countries around the world, and that Netanyahu “has to strengthen and change” his government to pursue a two-state solution. The Biden administration has repeatedly said that it wants the Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing body that oversees disconnected portions of the West Bank, to take control of Gaza once Hamas is removed from the enclave—a plan Netanyahu has firmly rejected despite the PA’s ongoing “security coordination” with Israel, under which it partners with Israeli soldiers to crack down on Palestinian militant groups. “I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism, support terrorism, and finance terrorism,” Netanyahu said last Tuesday.
  • Thirteen Senate Democrats plan to introduce legislation that would require US weapons sent to Israel to be used in accordance with US and international law. The legislation is slated to be raised as an amendment to the so-called national security supplemental bill, which would direct an additional $14.3 billion in military aid to Israel on top of the $3.8 billion the US already sends yearly. The amendment would require the president to report to Congress on whether Israel does, in fact, use weapons purchased under the supplemental bill in accordance with US and international law; it would also prohibit US aid to Israel if it impinges on US-funded humanitarian assistance to Palestinians. “When it comes to US military aid to Israel, American support cannot be a blank check to a right-wing Netanyahu government that has demonstrated a gross disregard for the lives of Palestinian civilians,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren. “US military aid always includes conditions, and there is no exception, even for our allies.” Given widespread Congressional opposition to imposing conditions on military aid to Israel, however, the amendment is likely to fail.
  • Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, announced her resignation on Saturday after months of pressure from pro-Israel donors. The campaign to depose Magill built on a backlash that occurred in September, when groups like Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League criticized the university for hosting a Palestinian cultural festival, claiming that some of the speakers were antisemitic. Calls for Magill to resign increased after a Congressional hearing last week, in which Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, claiming that chants of “intifada” are tantamount to calls for Jewish genocide, asked Magill whether such a call for genocide against Jews violated the school’s code of conduct. Magill said the answer was “context dependent,” and that the chants would violate the code “if the speech becomes conduct.” Subsequently, university trustees gathered to decide on Magill’s future. A majority of the board was prepared to force her out, but before they could do so, Magill made the decision to step down.
  • On Monday, Rutgers University suspended its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) over allegations that the club had disrupted classes and other campus activities. With this decision, Rutgers became the fourth school to disband or suspend an SJP chapter in the past two months in what has become a nationwide campaign against the pro-Palestine student group. George Washington University and Columbia University suspended their SJP chapters over alleged violations of school conduct, while Brandeis University disbanded its SJP chapter because, the administration claimed, it “openly supports Hamas.” Civil liberties advocates say that such moves amount to political censorship, a concern that is further compounded at Rutgers—a public university that is obliged to follow the First Amendment, which prohibits government actors from interfering in political organizing.
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