In a reflection of how dire the current situation in Gaza is, some dangerous fringe policies have been floated as possible ways to end the conflict. Foremost among these has been a suggestion that the Palestinian enclave’s more than two million people be displaced from their homes – some for a second time – and transferred to neighbouring Egypt.
On Tuesday, it was reported that the Israel’s Intelligence Ministry had produced a “concept paper” that contained a suggestion to push millions of Gazans to the Sinai Peninsula, a barren, mountainous territory that is home to 600,000 people. This was later played down by the Israeli government, but it is clear the proposal, or something like it, had been circulating at the highest levels. The fact that a readout of a call between US President Joe Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi this week contained a commitment to ensure “that Palestinians in Gaza are not displaced to Egypt or any other nation” is revealing.
It is of major concern that an idea as illegal, impractical and immoral as population transfer even has to be rebutted, but it points to the worrying resurgence of some of the extreme thinking that has characterised the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for decades. It is not the first time that the idea of expelling a Palestinian population has been put forward. As far back as the 1930s, the idea of pushing the local population out of their towns and villages to make way for Jewish immigration was common among those who sought a Jewish state in Palestine. Sadly, that idea was embraced and followed through upon; this year is the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, the violent uprooting and dispersal of an entire society with the establishment of the state of Israel.
Undoubtedly, there were always extreme elements among Israel's political classes who argued for the further displacement of the territory’s remaining Palestinian population to other countries, heedless of Palestinian identity and demonstrable, legal ties to their land. The creeping dismemberment of the West Bank by illegal settlements, resulting in the effective hamstringing of a Palestinian state, is an example of pushing Palestinians to leave by making life intolerable for them. Some of those who created and encouraged this agenda are now in Israel’s government, as are their wild fantasies of annexing the West Bank and reoccupying Gaza. Some of the more radical among this group may well regard today’s conflict as a conduit to implement this idea. Like many bad ideas, it is facile and contains strategic mistakes.
The transfer reports have emerged as the US continues to seek options for what the future in Gaza will look like after this war. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel, Jordan and Turkey this week. It is incumbent upon him to make the position of Mr Biden more visible – there is to be no expulsion of people from Gaza.
Fundamentally, the re-emergence of population transfer as a conceivable policy also repeats the historical mistake of trying to decide the Palestinians’ future against their will. This is a deadly error that lies at the heart of this most painful of conflicts. At some point this war will end; Gazans will still be in Gaza. Nothing can be solved by glib, vengeful fantasies of displacement. The harder task is to develop a way forward that will allow the two peoples at the heart of this conflict to live in peace.