Remarks from far-right ministers renew concerns that Israel aims to force Palestinians out of Gaza amid ongoing war.
Rights advocates in the United States are urging President Joe Biden to end his administration’s “complicity” in Israeli rights abuses after key members of Israel’s government backed the idea of pushing Palestinians out of Gaza.
Far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich said this week that Israel should “encourage emigration” from the coastal enclave, home to an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians.
Israel has been carrying out a military offensive in Gaza since October 7, resulting in an estimated 1.9 million Palestinians being internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
“If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after [the war ends] will be totally different,” Smotrich said on Sunday, calling for the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians.
A day later, Ben-Gvir, who oversees national security, made a similar appeal, saying it was “a correct, just, moral and humane solution”, Israeli media outlets reported.
Their remarks are the latest by Israeli officials alluding to the prospect of resettling Palestinians outside of Gaza. Human rights and legal experts have warned that forced displacement constitutes a war crime under international law and could lead to ethnic cleansing.
“It’s not really ‘voluntary’ when you’re bombing homes and starving the entire population,” said Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian American organiser.
Mubarak told Al Jazeera that the Biden administration has not only failed to condemn Israeli officials’ push to get Palestinians out of Gaza, but it has also contributed to the war by providing Israel with continued military aid and diplomatic support.
“They have played an immense part in this genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” she said.
Over the past several weeks, as Israel pressed on with its bombing campaign, senior US officials have said they do not support efforts to force Palestinians out of the enclave.
“The United States remains firmly opposed to any forced or enduring displacement of Palestinians from Gaza,” a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email on Monday evening, without commenting specifically on the Israeli ministers’ most recent remarks.
In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Washington “rejects” the comments by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
“This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible. We have been told repeatedly and consistently by the Government of Israel, including by the Prime Minister, that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government. They should stop immediately,” Miller said.
But rights advocates say the US’s unwavering support for Israel’s war, which has killed more than 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza to date, is leaving the door open to further atrocities and violations of international law.
Under the Fourth Geneva Convention, civilians cannot be deported or forcibly transferred from a territory unless such a move is required for “the security of civilians involved or imperative military reasons”. The International Criminal Court (ICC) also states that the forcible displacement of civilians is a war crime unless justified by “military necessity” or civilian safety.
Kenneth Roth, a former head of Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera in a television interview on Monday that the “idea of massive ethnic cleansing — the war crime of forced displacement — is still very much an idea” within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Critics fear, however, that there is growing pressure to make that idea a reality in Gaza. Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s comments are only the latest in a string of comments that have prompted concern since the war began.
In late October, for instance, the news outlet +972 Magazine reported that the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence had recommended the forcible transfer of Gaza’s population to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, also wrote in The Jerusalem Post in November that the international community should be “helping the people of Gaza build new lives” elsewhere.
Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the UN and another Likud lawmaker, also has promoted the “voluntary migration” idea. In a Wall Street Journal opinion column in November, Danon and Yesh Atid party legislator Ram Ben-Barak urged “a handful of the world’s nations to share the responsibility of hosting Gazan residents”.
Yet while the US has pressed Israeli leaders to avoid civilian casualties and allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza, Roth said that “Biden so far refuses to use the leverage he has” to pressure Israel.
The country receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually. In addition, late last week, the Biden administration bypassed Congress to authorise the transfer of about $147m in artillery ammunition, saying that “an emergency exists that requires the immediate sale” of the weapons to Israel.
“It would have been very simple to say, ‘You want these weapons? Let in the aid. You want these weapons? Stop killing so many civilians.’ [Biden] didn’t do that,” Roth said.
“He left it completely unconditional, giving up the leverage he had and, in a sense, making him complicit in what’s going on — actually, an aider and abetter of those war crimes.”
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, also told Al Jazeera that the Biden administration could be doing more to discourage any attempts at forced displacement.
Israel’s military offensive, she explained, has “made Gaza not just unlivable but has put at risk the lives of the 2.3 million Palestinians that are there”.
Israel — as an occupying power — has an obligation to ensure the basic needs of Gaza’s Palestinians are met, Hassan said. But instead, the ongoing Israeli bombardment has destroyed critical infrastructure in Gaza, and its siege is severely limiting access to food, water and other much-needed supplies.
“So to come now and say that Palestinians in Gaza, if they so chose to leave, would be welcome to do so by Israel is a really cynical understanding of their obligations. They haven’t really created choice at this point for Palestinians. They’re trying to, it appears, force them to flee and force them to seek safety and survival elsewhere,” she said.
Hassan also called Netanyahu’s comments about taking control of the Egypt-Gaza border zone — an area known as the Philadelphi corridor — deeply concerning.
“This would enable them to execute on any plans they have to push Palestinians out of Gaza under this guise of it being voluntary.”
Voluntary migration? No matter how ISR gvt calls it, Forced Displacement is a CRIME, prosecutable under the Rome Statute.Its architects shall be investigated/prosecuted by @IntlCrimCourt & other courts under #UniversalJurisdiction.@KarimKhanQC: Justice delayed is Justice denied. https://t.co/TTfvHxIYot
— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) December 26, 2023
While officials have said the Biden administration does not support forced displacement, “we haven’t seen much in the way of US action to prevent all of the different ways in which Israel is making displacement inevitable”, Hassan said.
“We haven’t heard US officials say it is absolutely illegitimate and illegal to starve a population — to deny them food, water, electricity and utilities and supplies,” she said.
“The US has a lot of influence over Israel. It has not so far been willing to do more than have quiet conversations with Israel behind the scenes about what it expects. It has of late made some statements publicly, but we haven’t seen it use its leverage as it would need to.”
Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s statements, however, have renewed pressure for the US to act.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), released a statement on Sunday calling on the Biden administration to “repudiate” Smotrich’s words.
He added that US leaders “must finally acknowledge what has long been known and demonstrated daily by Israel’s genocidal actions — that Israel’s racist government seeks to ethnically cleanse Gaza”.
“It has always been the Israeli government’s plan to ethnically cleanse Gaza,” he wrote. “Smotrich just made it official.”
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