It is simply inaccurate to claim that the ongoing Israeli attempt to displace all, or as many as possible, Palestinian refugees from Gaza to Sinai is a new idea, compelled solely by recent events. Displacing Palestinians — or their “transfer”, as it is known in Israeli political circles — is an old idea, as old as Israel itself.
In fact, historically, population “transfer” has been more than an idea; it’s government policy, with clear mechanisms for carrying it out. Yosef Weitz, director of the Land and Afforestation Department, was entrusted with setting up the Transfer Committee in May 1948 to oversee the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from their towns and villages. In other words, while Israel was concluding the initial phase of its ethnic cleansing of Palestine, it initiated another phase, that of “transfer”, the results of which are well-known.
Many of Israel’s so-called liberal intellectuals have promoted the concept, either proactively or in hindsight, and continue to do so. “I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes,” Israeli historian Benny Morris told Haaretz in 2004. “I think he [Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion] made a serious historical mistake in 1948… If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job… You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.”
Morris was referring specifically to the Nakba, which began in earnest in December 1947, and did not conclude until 1949. After that, ethnic cleansing took on a different form; a slower campaign aimed at rejigging the demographic map of the newly-founded state in favour of Israeli Jews at the expense of Palestinian Arabs.
Several campaigns targeting Palestinian Arab communities, those which remained in Israel after the Nakba, were initiated under various guises. Although not a single community had survived the demographic onslaught by the Israeli government intact, Palestinian Bedouins faced the lion’s share of displacement. It’s a campaign that continues to this day.
After the war of June 1967, mass expulsion was again the order of the day. Approximately 430,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced, especially from areas originally occupied in 1948. Over the years, up to the present, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jewish settlers have taken the place of the displaced Palestinians, claiming their land, homes and orchards as their own.
From an international law perspective, ethnic cleansing is one of Israel’s greatest war crimes
In fact, the slow ethnic cleansing of the West Bank is considered to be the epicentre of Israel’s ongoing colonialism in Occupied Palestine. From an international law perspective, it is one of its greatest war crimes, as it represents a stark violation of international norms, especially the Fourth Geneva Convention: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,” states Article 49 of the convention. It also prohibits the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.”
To claim that the recent call for the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza is a new phenomenon compelled by the violence on 7 October, and the subsequent genocide in Gaza, is therefore both inaccurate and dishonest. Such a claim ignores the fact that Israel, as a settler-colonial project, was founded on the concept of ethnic cleansing, and that Israeli politicians have never stopped talking about the mass displacement — “transfer” — of Palestinians, even under supposedly “normal” circumstances.
For example, the then Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman tried in 2014 to rebrand the old “transfer” strategy, using not-so-clever new language. “When I talk about land and population exchange, I mean the Little Triangle and Wadi Ara,” explained Lieberman, referring to the predominantly Arab regions in central and northern Israel. He insisted that, “This is not a transfer.”
This context is critical if we wish to truly understand the story behind the enthusiastic return to the language of ethnic cleansing by Israel and its allies.
Furthermore, on 11 November, Israel’s Minister for Agriculture and former head of the Shin Bet domestic spy agency, Avi Dichter, called specifically for another Nakba. “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” he said during a TV interview.
The following information can be deduced from Dichter’s statement: Israelis are very familiar with the term “Nakba”, and they know exactly what happened to the people of Palestine 75 years ago — ethnic cleansing and genocide — and remain unrepentant.
Dichter’s words were not said in anger, or in the heat of the moment. A leaked government report dated 13 October, six days into the war, suggested the mass transfer of the Palestinians in Gaza to the Sinai desert. Four days later, the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy think tank published a paper calling on the Israeli government to take advantage of this “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate [sic] the whole Gaza Strip.”
It makes little sense to assume that such extensive reports were conjured up within a matter of days. It takes years of planning and discussions for such complex schemes to be prepared and made worthy of official consideration.
This is not the only evidence that the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza was not an urgent strategy propelled by recent events; Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, who were not involved in the 7 October operation, have also found themselves under the threat of expulsion. This prompted Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh to state on 7 November that Amman considers any attempt to displace Palestinians to be a “red line”; in fact, a “declaration of war”.
Although Arab and international pressure has, thus far, failed to slow down the Israeli killing machine in Gaza, Arab countries have spoken out firmly against any Israeli attempt to displace Palestinians.
For now, the majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants, most of whom are refugees from historic Palestine, are internally displaced within that tiny piece of land, denied water, food and electricity; in fact, denied life itself. Nevertheless, they remain steadfast and will not allow another Nakba to take place, no matter what the cost.
The “Gaza Nakba” must be rejected, not only by words, but also through solid Arab and international action to prevent Israel from taking advantage of the war to expel Palestinians from their homeland again. Such action must also include steps to hold Israel to account for its war crimes past, present and ongoing, starting with the original 1948 Nakba.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.