Concerns are reignited as remarks from far-right ministers suggest that Israel may be seeking to compel Palestinians to leave Gaza amid the ongoing conflict.
Rights advocates in the United States are urging President Joe Biden to cease what they perceive as his administration’s “complicity” in Israeli human rights abuses. This call comes in response to statements from far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who expressed support this week for the idea of promoting the emigration of Palestinians from Gaza. The coastal enclave is home to an estimated 2.3 million Palestinians.
Since October 7, Israel has been conducting a military offensive in Gaza, resulting in an estimated 1.9 million Palestinians being internally displaced, as reported by the United Nations. Far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have recently advocated for the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians from Gaza, suggesting that a smaller population would alter post-war discussions.
However, human rights and legal experts caution that forced displacement constitutes a war crime under international law and could lead to ethnic cleansing. The comments by Israeli officials have sparked concerns, and critics argue that the so-called “voluntary” aspect is undermined by the impact of bombings and the broader humanitarian crisis.
Rasha Mubarak, a Palestinian American organizer, contends that the Biden administration has not only refrained from condemning Israeli officials’ calls for Palestinian migration but has also contributed to the conflict by providing ongoing military aid and diplomatic support to Israel.
“They have played an immense part in this genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people,” she said.
As Israel continues its bombing campaign, senior US officials have distanced themselves from efforts to compel Palestinians to leave Gaza. The State Department, in response to recent remarks by Israeli ministers Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, reiterated its firm opposition to any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. A State Department spokesperson stated that the U.S. rejects the inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric, emphasizing that such statements do not align with the stated policy of the Israeli government. The Biden administration has been urged to take a stronger stance against actions that may contribute to the displacement of Palestinians.
Rights advocates argue that the unwavering support from the U.S. for Israel’s war, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 22,000 Palestinians in Gaza, is enabling further atrocities and violations of international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention explicitly prohibits the deportation or forced transfer of civilians from a territory unless it is required for the security of civilians or imperative military reasons. Similarly, the International Criminal Court (ICC) considers the forcible displacement of civilians a war crime unless justified by military necessity or civilian safety.
Kenneth Roth, a former head of Human Rights Watch, stated in a television interview that the concept of massive ethnic cleansing, constituting the war crime of forced displacement, remains an idea within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. This underscores the concerns raised by rights advocates about the potential consequences of such policies on the ground.
Concerns are rising among critics who fear that the idea of forced displacement in Gaza may transition from rhetoric to reality. The recent comments from Israeli ministers Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are just the latest in a series of statements that have fueled apprehension since the beginning of the war. In late October, +972 Magazine reported that the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence had suggested the forcible transfer of Gaza’s population to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. These developments contribute to a growing sense of unease regarding potential actions that could lead to significant displacement and its consequences in the region.
The idea of facilitating the relocation of Gaza’s population is not limited to specific individuals, as several Israeli figures have voiced similar sentiments. Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, advocated in The Jerusalem Post for international assistance in helping Gazans build new lives elsewhere. Former UN Ambassador Danny Danon, also from Likud, and Yesh Atid party legislator Ram Ben-Barak, promoted the idea of “voluntary migration” in a Wall Street Journal opinion column, suggesting that a few nations share the responsibility of hosting Gazan residents.
Despite urging Israeli leaders to minimize civilian casualties and enhance humanitarian aid access to Gaza, rights advocates argue that President Biden has not used the leverage at his disposal to pressure Israel effectively. Israel receives $3.8 billion in annual military aid from the U.S., and recently, the Biden administration authorized the transfer of approximately $147 million in artillery ammunition to Israel, bypassing Congress by citing an “emergency exists.” Human rights advocates criticize the administration for not linking these weapon transfers to conditions such as allowing more aid into Gaza or reducing civilian casualties.
Concerns are mounting over comments regarding the Gaza-Egypt border, with Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, expressing worry about the Biden administration’s potential role in preventing forced displacement.
Hassan argues that Israel’s military offensive has rendered Gaza not only unlivable but has also endangered the lives of the 2.3 million Palestinians residing there. As an occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to meet the basic needs of Gaza’s population. However, the ongoing bombardment has destroyed critical infrastructure, and the siege severely restricts access to essential supplies such as food and water.
Hassan contends that suggesting Palestinians in Gaza would be welcome to leave by Israel is a cynical interpretation of Israel’s obligations. Given the current circumstances, she argues that Palestinians are not presented with a genuine choice but are instead being pressured to flee and seek safety elsewhere.