‘Voluntary emigration:’ The euphemism of the Israeli extreme right to depopulate Gaza

Ministers and deputies in favor of reestablishing Jewish settlements in the enclave are promoting ‘encouraging’ Palestinians to relocate to other countries

Israel Hamas War
Itamar Ben-Gvir on a visit to the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on January 5.RONALDO SCHEMIDT (AFP)

A euphemism has been gaining weight in Israeli political jargon concerning Gaza: “Voluntary emigration.” It consists of “encouraging” (another term often used by its promoters) Palestinians who wish to do so to leave Gaza to be hosted by other countries. “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million, the whole discourse about the day after [the war] will be different,” said one of its main advocates, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, on December 31.

The idea is being pushed, with increasing force, by the ultra-right elements of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, who also want Israel to fully control Gaza and rebuild the Jewish settlements that Ariel Sharon’s administration evacuated in 2005. They are, at the same time, aware of the impossibility of forcibly displacing all those who inhabit the Gaza Strip. The initiative also has supporters in other sectors of the political spectrum, such as Danny Danon, a former U.N. ambassador and member of the Knesset for Likud, the prime minister’s party, and Ram Ben-Barak, a parliamentarian for Yesh Atid, the opposition party of the former head of government, Yair Lapid. Ben-Barak, a former Mossad deputy director, has suggested distributing Gazans among 100 different nations, with 20,000 in each. No one is talking about when, and if, they would return.

Faced with international condemnations of the proposal, including from staunch allies such as Washington, Berlin and London, Netanyahu last Wednesday — the day before the hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over accusations of genocide — issued a statement in English to “make some points absolutely clear.” Among these was that Israel “has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

But displacing the population is not the same as encouraging, on paper, “voluntary” departure from Gaza, which is suffering under the heaviest bombardment in decades. Since the Israeli invasion was launched, more than 1% of the population of Gaza has been killed and entire neighborhoods destroyed. Two weeks ago, Netanyahu told a meeting of his party that the “problem” with the initiative is finding countries “willing to absorb” Gazans. “We are working on it,” he reportedly said. According to The Times of Israel, there have been secret contacts with Congo, among other countries.

The Al Nusairat refugee camp, southern Gaza, January 16.
The Al Nusairat refugee camp, southern Gaza, January 16. MOHAMMED SABER (EFE)

“Better housing” for Gazans

The idea was first mooted in November, after Israel invaded Gaza and more than a million people were forced to head to the south of Gaza. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has refused to open the Rafah crossing, the only one that does not provide access to Israel. “What is happening now in Gaza is an attempt to force civilian residents to take refuge and migrate to Egypt, which should not be accepted [...] Egypt rejects any attempt to resolve the Palestinian issue by military means or through the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land, which would come at the expense of the countries of the region,” he declared in October.

Shortly afterward, a working document from the Israeli Intelligence Ministry — headed by a supporter of “voluntary emigration,” Likud’s Gila Gamliel — was leaked to the press. It recommended expelling the population of Gaza, by force and permanently, to the Egyptian Sinai. Danny Ayalon, former ambassador to the United States and a former number two in the Foreign Ministry, spoke of the “almost infinite space” in the Sinai desert for setting up tents.

If “voluntary emigration” occupies more and more space in debates and on television, it is partly because it is being openly promoted by up to five ministers, almost all ultranationalists — the sector of the coalition that U.S. President Joe Biden last month publicly called on Netanyahu to dispense with, because “this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move” and “doesn’t want a two-state solution” to the Palestine-Israel conflict. Biden specifically mentioned Minister of the Interior Itamar Ben-Gvir, who two weeks ago viewed the war as an opportunity to focus on “encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza” as a “correct, just, moral and humane solution,” to the conflict.

Another supporter of the proposal is Heritage Minister Amijai Eliyahu, who generated controversy by suggesting dropping an atomic bomb on Gaza as an option. In an interview with the Ynet television network, he provoked laughter on the set by arguing that voluntary emigration is not a forced displacement, but a possibility of “better housing” for those Gazans who “refuse to live in such conditions,” in reference to the destruction in Gaza. Israeli bombardments have left 290,000 houses damaged, 70,000 of them destroyed or uninhabitable, according to figures from the Gaza government collected last Monday by the United Nations. Half a million people have nothing to return to.

A house bombed by the Israeli army in Rafah, southern Gaza, January 9.
A house bombed by the Israeli army in Rafah, southern Gaza, January 9.MOHAMMED SALEM (REUTERS)

Shlomo Karhi, Minister of Communications and a Likud member, defended the proposal recently in an interview on the parliamentary television channel: “We certainly need to encourage emigration so that there’s as little pressure as possible inside the Gaza Strip from people who at the moment are uninvolved, but they’re not exactly lovers of Israel, and they educate their children to [embrace] terror. We’ve talked about this in government meetings. There aren’t any countries that want to take them in. No one wants them, even if we pay a lot of money. Voluntary emigration is important. It doesn’t in any way harm human rights.”

Karhi’s interview came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the issue on January 9 at a press conference at the end of his latest visit to Israel. “In today’s meetings, I was also crystal clear: Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They must not be pressed to leave Gaza. As I told the prime minister, the United States unequivocally rejects any proposals advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza, and the prime minister reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel’s government.”

Humanitarian arguments

Proponents of the proposal often resort to humanitarian arguments. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in November, Ben-Barak and Danon asserted that “the international community has a moral imperative — and an opportunity — to demonstrate compassion, help the people of Gaza move toward a more prosperous future and work together to achieve greater peace and stability in the Middle East.” The authors recalled how several European countries and the United States took in refugees from the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and, more recently, Syria, and called on the West to “accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate.”

Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on the Israeli political system, laments the “disconnection from reality” and “ethnocentrism” of those promoting the initiative, as much as Netanyahu retaining them in the government. “He needs the 64 MPs [out of 120, which he has with ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox deputies] for the day when Benny Gantz leaves the emergency government. He knows that they give him what he wants, and Gantz and [Yair] Lapid do not,” he notes over the phone. The proposal, he believes, is also a tool of the far-right to mobilize its own supporters, who are in favor of rebuilding the settlements in Gaza, and to attract the Likud sector that is more aligned with religious nationalism.

Last week, at a conference in a Jerusalem museum called “Lessons from Gaza – an end to the idea of two states,” Gamliel said that on the day the war ends “we will still have about two million people [in Gaza], many of whom voted for Hamas and celebrated the massacre of innocent men, women, and children” on October 7. The minister said the conflict is an “opportunity” for the international community, “which claims to care about the Palestinians,” to step up to the plate. “I will make it simple by stating it in three simple words: Open the door […] I say to the international community: No one is pushing or forcing anybody out, but surely you can’t be indifferent to their suffering. Just open the door and let those who wish it to join the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who have already left voluntarily in the last few years.”

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