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Expel all Palestinians from Gaza, leaked Israeli report says

Expel all Palestinians from Gaza, leaked Israeli report says, in new bid to ethnically cleanse the enclave
7 min read
31 October, 2023
While a leaked Israeli intelligence report's call for a total and permanent transfer of civilians from Gaza is shocking, it is indicative of past and present brutal Israeli policy towards Palestinians, experts say.
Israel's intelligence ministry has proposed cities be constructed in the Sinai peninsula to house Palestinians it forcibly displaces from Gaza [Abed Zagout/Anadolu via Getty]

A leaked document produced by Israel's intelligence ministry has recommended the ethnic cleansing of Gaza with the enclave's 2.3 million Palestinian population expelled to Egypt's Sinai peninsula, a move that if realised would constitute a "war crime", a human rights expert has said.

The report, titled 'Options for a policy regarding Gaza's civilian population', recommends that Gazans – more than half of whom have already been displaced by weeks of Israeli bombardment – temporarily be herded into "tent cities" in Sinai, before cities are constructed in a "resettled area" in the north of the peninsula to house them.

The paper was purportedly published on 13 October, six days after Israel began its ruthless and near-constant bombardment of the densely populated Gaza Strip. The document was revealed in full by the site Local Call on Sunday.

Intelligence ministry sources have confirmed to multiple news sites that the report is real, but claim it was only meant to serve as a basis for government discussions.

But experts speaking to The New Arab say that while the report's call for a total and permanent transfer of Gaza's population is shocking, it is indicative of past and present brutal Israeli policy towards Palestinians, particularly those in the Gaza Strip.

'An executable option'

The intelligence ministry document gives three possible options for the future of the Gaza Strip, amid Israel's crushing offensive on the territory that has killed some 8,500 people since 7 October.

It suggests that its "Option C" – "the evacuation of the civilian population from Gaza to Sinai", according to a translation of the document published by +972 magazine – would be the most effective and "executable option".

In the first stage of Option C, "tent cities will be established in the area of Sinai," the translated version of the report reads. "The next stage includes... the construction of cities in a resettled area in northern Sinai."

The report suggests the creation of a "sterile zone" within Egypt and makes other seemingly long-term recommendations.

"The return of the population to activities/residences near the border with Israel should not be allowed," the report reads. "In addition, a security perimeter should be established in our territory near the border with Egypt."

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Options A and B do not involve the displacement of Palestinians in Gaza.

Option B would see Hamas, who controlled the territory after winning a democratic election there in 2006, replaced with a "local Arab authority". Option A would see the Palestinian Authority which runs the West Bank brought in to replace Hamas.

However, according to the ministry, these options would not give any long-term guarantee of Israeli interests being looked after.

'War crime'

Human rights experts have condemned the recommendation that Gazans, many of whom are descendants of Palestinians displaced during Israel's Nakba, be forcibly and permanently moved.

"There can be nothing that can justify permanent forcible displacement of Palestinians in Gaza – that would be a war crime," Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) told The New Arab.

"Under international humanitarian law... the civilian population must be allowed to be returned as soon as possible, so any sort of permanent displacement would be a war crime, a very serious violation of international law."

The intelligence ministry appears to acknowledge in its report that its 'Option C' would be internationally unpopular – but suggests that "harnessing the support of the United States and additional pro-Israeli countries" could help make the plan a reality.

What say Egypt?

Egypt has repeatedly said no to these plans to relocate Gazans to Sinai, including as recently as last week.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told the press last week that Palestinians would not be resettled en masse in Egypt.

"Not only [because] we in Egypt will not allow it, but it is perilous to the [Palestinian] cause," Ahram Online reported Sisi as saying.

In its defence of Option C, the ministry said in its report that "Egypt has an obligation under international law to allow the passage of the population" - but says nothing of how it might be able to justify the permanent resettlement of Palestinians in another sovereign state.

It also claims that pro-Israel states, once brought on board with the plan, could make the deal sweeter for Egypt, including with "financial assistance for the current economic crisis in Egypt".

The plan suggests that some of the deported Gazans could be moved along to other territories – including the Gulf, a region famously resistant to taking in refugees.

But the ministry said Tel Aviv might be able to gain favour for the plan with countries in the region: "The overthrow of Hamas will gain support from the Gulf states," it claimed.

'No surprises'

Experts have told The New Arab that while the report itself is new, it is not unexpected.

In the days after the launch of the devastating bombing campaign on 7 October and later a total siege, former figures of authority in Israel have touted plans not dissimilar to that of the intelligence ministry.

Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council, called in an op-ed published in English on 12 October for Israel to create conditions so dire that "tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf."

A few days later, former Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told Al Jazeera that Gazans should evacuate their residences and relocate to "tent cities" in the Sinai -- a recommendation of eerie resemblance to Option C of the intelligence ministry report.

Dotan Halevy, a post-doctoral fellow at the Polonsky Academy at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute told The New Arab that Gaza has in the past been proposed and even used as a place to put Palestinians.

In 1953, the Egyptian military government and the United Nations put forward a plan by which they wanted to thin out the refugee population in Gaza and relocate them to Sinai - a plan that was quickly shot down.

In the 1970s, Israel's southern command, led by Ariel Sharon, established detention camps deep in what was then Israeli-occupied Sinai, holding families of suspects of insurgency in camps for many months.

"This is maybe a pretext of looking at Sinai as this kind of space that Palestinians can take to," Halevy said. "But it was not on a massive scale – more part of the tactics of counter-insurgency project."

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Sinai was under Israeli occupation from the Six Day War of 1967 until 1982, a few years after Egypt and Israel normalised ties.

"After 1967, Israel had several projects that it tried to implement upon the population of Gaza - but not relocating them to Sinai, even though Sinai was under Israeli occupation at the time," Halevy said.

"There was a project of trying to encourage the Palestinian population out of Gaza - that was a project of about a year, that  'succeeded' in convincing several thousand people to relocate to Jordan, but eventually it failed miserably.

"There have also been projects to relocate people to new neighbourhoods within the Gaza Strip. But there were no plans for a massive migration to Sinai, as far as I know."

Israeli politicians have long seen Gaza and its spirited people as a thorn in its side. In 1992, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin infamously said "I wish Gaza would sink into the sea."

"The Gaza Strip was always a strip of land that Israelis did not want to have any responsibility for... they wanted someone else to be responsible for it," Yonatan Mendel, who teaches at the Middle East Department at Ben Gurion University told The New Arab.

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Israel is currently run by the most far-right government it has ever had.

Senior minister Bezalel Smotrich has denied the existence of the Palestinian people and vowed to annexe the West Bank. Israel has been forcibly transferring Palestinians from the West Bank, a practice that just yesterday saw local human rights groups and civil society organisations urge for international action. Israeli security forces have supported Jewish religious extremist groups as they repeatedly storm the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

With this as the current context, the proposed plan to forcibly transfer Palestinians "should not come as any shock", Mendel said.

"With the current Israeli rhetoric and situation, this is not a surprise... You have all kinds of unrealistic, unbelievable, extreme views about the Palestinians, in the current government but also in other governments, which is reflected in the way Israelis generally look at Gazans.

"I believe that the general public in Israel has no interest in thinking about the Palestinian cause or the future life of Palestinians or their wellbeing... will be very happy, just like the ministry of intelligence, that someone else will be in charge of them."