Conventional wisdom has generally held that Israel’s government lacks a strategy for the Gaza Strip beyond toppling Hamas.
“Israel has no plan for Gaza after war ends, experts warn,” the BBC reported in October. In November The Washington Post observed that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, “has come under criticism for not offering a clear plan for what happens in Gaza if Israel succeeds in its goal of deposing Hamas.” A headline in Foreign Affairs in December lamented “Israel’s Muddled Strategy in Gaza.”
But there are signs that some members of the Israeli government do indeed have a strategy, or at least a preference, for what happens next. It’s implicit in the kind of war Israel has waged, which has made Gaza largely unlivable. And a growing number of Israeli officials are saying it out loud: They don’t want to force just Hamas out of Gaza. They want many of Gaza’s people to leave, too.
The calls for population transfers started long before Gaza was reduced to the ruins that it is today. Six days after Hamas’s massacre of Israelis on Oct. 7, the Intelligence Ministry proposed permanently relocating Gazans to the Sinai region of Egypt. On Nov. 14, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he supported “the voluntary emigration of Gaza Arabs to countries around the world.” Five days later, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel endorsed “the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the strip.”
The Israel Hayom newspaper reported on Nov. 30 that Mr. Netanyahu had asked Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, one of his closest confidants, to develop a plan to “thin” the population in Gaza “to a minimum” by prying open Egypt’s doors and opening up sea routes to other countries. Mr. Netanyahu also reportedly urged President Biden and the leaders of Britain and France to push Egypt to admit hundreds of thousands of Gazan refugees.
At times, Israeli officials have downplayed or denied these reports. Mr. Netanyahu’s office called the Intelligence Ministry’s transfer plan a mere “concept paper” and Israel’s embassy in Washington clarified that the intelligence minister was speaking only for herself. Other influential government ministers — like Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu rival and former chief of staff of the Israeli military who joined the government after Oct. 7 — oppose moving Gaza’s population outside the strip, according to Israel Hayom. Mr. Gallant, it emerged last week, has floated a proposal that would have Palestinians unconnected to Hamas or the Palestinian Authority administering the territory, with other countries overseeing reconstruction.
But in recent days the talk of Palestinian departures from Gaza has grown louder. At a meeting of his Likud party on Dec. 25, Mr. Netanyahu was urged by a legislator to put into place a team to facilitate the “voluntary” departure of Palestinians from Gaza. The prime minister reportedly replied that the government was “working on” finding countries willing to take them.
Similar comments from Israel’s national security minister followed, with The Times of Israel asserting on Wednesday that voluntary resettlement from Gaza is gradually becoming “a key official policy of the government.”
Some might dismiss this talk of population transfer as wartime bluster. But on the ground, it is already well underway: Gaza is becoming uninhabitable. According to the United Nations, an estimated 85 percent of Gaza’s people are now displaced. Even if they could return to their homes, many would have little to go back to since, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal, nearly 70 percent of Gaza’s housing is damaged or destroyed.
More than 22,000 Gazans have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, and many more are in acute danger. According to the Gaza director of affairs for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, 40 percent of the strip’s residents are at risk of famine. Given the collapse of Gaza’s sanitation and medical systems, as much as a quarter of Gaza’s people could die within the year, mostly from disease or lack of access to medical care, according to a recent estimate by Prof. Devi Sridhar, the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh.
If the fighting in Gaza ends soon, this cataclysm could ease. But in late December, Mr. Netanyahu suggested that Israel’s war in Gaza would “last for many more months,” albeit with fewer troops. Mr. Gallant has said it could take years. And as long as hostilities in Gaza continue, Israel will not allow most of Gaza’s displaced to go back to their homes, for safety’s sake, the Israeli journalist Nadav Eyal recently reported. They may not return for “at least a year,” he suggested.
The humanitarian catastrophe, in other words, is likely to persist. And the longer it does, the more pressure Egypt will feel to alleviate it by letting Gaza’s residents in. Israeli officials would most likely continue to depict such a migration as voluntary, despite having created the conditions that precipitated it.
So far, Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and the Biden administration have said they adamantly oppose relocating Gaza’s people. The U.S. State Department last week said the Israeli government has repeatedly told American officials that resettlement outside Gaza is not its official policy.
But some members of Israel’s government reportedly believe that Egypt — which owes creditors a whopping $28 billion in debt payments next year — is vulnerable to pressure. And U.S. politics could always change: Asked last month what should happen to Gaza’s Palestinians, the Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley replied, “They should go to pro-Hamas countries.”
There’s a chilling historical backdrop to all this. Palestinians in Gaza know that if they leave, Israel is unlikely to let them return. They know this because most of them are descendants of the expulsion and flight that occurred around Israel’s founding in 1948, which Palestinians call the nakba. They live in Gaza because Israel didn’t let their families return to the places that then became part of Israel. Hundreds of thousands more Palestinians were displaced when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. It didn’t let many of those refugees return, either.
Israel’s leaders rarely express regret for these mass displacements. Sometimes, they even invoke them as precedent. Addressing Palestinians on Facebook after three Israelis were murdered in the West Bank in 2017, Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s current national security adviser, warned, “This is how a ‘nakba’ begins. Just like this. Remember ’48. Remember ’67.”
He ended his post with the words, “You’ve been warned!”
The world has been warned, too.