Two far-right members of Israel’s cabinet, the national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and the finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, caused an international uproar this week with their calls to depopulate Gaza. “If in Gaza there will be 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs and not two million the entire conversation on ‘the day after’ will look different,” said Smotrich, who called for most Gazan civilians to be resettled in other countries. The war, said Ben-Gvir, presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza,” facilitating Israeli settlement in the region.
The Biden administration has joined countries all over the world in condemning these naked endorsements of ethnic cleansing. But in doing so, it acted as if Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s provocations are fundamentally at odds with the worldview of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom America continues to give unconditional backing. In a statement denouncing the ministers’ words as “inflammatory and irresponsible,” the State Department said, “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.” Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat who has called for a cease-fire, thanked the State Department in a social media post, saying, “It must be clear that America will not write a blank check for mass displacement.”
But it’s not clear, because we’re writing a blank check to a government whose leader is only a bit more coy than Ben-Gvir and Smotrich about his intentions for Gaza. As Israeli news outlets have reported, Netanyahu said this week that the government is considering a “scenario of surrender and deportation” of residents of the Gaza Strip. According to a Times of Israel article, “The ‘voluntary’ resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza is slowly becoming a key official policy of the government, with a senior official saying that Israel has held talks with several countries for their potential absorption.”
Some in Israel’s government have denied this, mostly on grounds of impracticality. “It’s a baseless illusion, in my opinion: No country will absorb two million people, or one million, or 100,000, or 5,000,” one official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Israeli journalists. And on Thursday, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, released a plan for the day after the war that said that, contrary to the dreams of the ultranationalists, there would be no Israeli settlement in Gaza.
But with its widespread destruction of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, including roughly 70 percent of its housing, Israel is making most of Gaza uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. Disease is rampant in Gaza, hunger almost universal, and the United Nations reports that much of the enclave is at risk of famine. Amid all this horror, members of Netanyahu’s Likud party — such as Danny Danon, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, and Gila Gamliel, Israel’s intelligence minister — are pushing emigration as a humanitarian solution.
“Instead of funneling money to rebuild Gaza or to the failed UNRWA,” the United Nations agency that works with Palestinian refugees, “the international community can assist in the costs of resettlement, helping the people of Gaza build new lives in their new host countries,” wrote Gamliel in The Jerusalem Post. Right now, this is a grotesque fantasy. But as Gaza’s suffering ratchets up, some sort of evacuation might come to appear like a necessary last resort. At least, that’s what some prominent Israeli officials seem to be counting on.
After Hamas’s sadistic attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Israel was justified in retaliating; any country would have. But there is a difference between the war Israel’s liberal supporters want to pretend that the country is fighting in Gaza, and the war Israel is actually waging.
Pro-Israel Democrats want to back a war to remove Hamas from Gaza. But increasingly, it looks as if America is underwriting a war to remove Gazans from Gaza. Experts in international law can debate whether the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza can be classified as genocidal,