“Voluntary Migration” or Ethnic Cleansing? Mouin Rabbani on Israel’s Push to Expel Residents of Gaza

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AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani, I want to ask you about your new piece for Mondoweiss headlined “The long history of Zionist proposals to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip.” Israeli news outlets report that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told a group of Israeli lawmakers last week, quote, “Regarding voluntary immigration … this is the direction we are going in,” Netanyahu said. Israel’s minister of national security, the man who’s been convicted of terrorism, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has made similar comments.

ITAMAR BENGVIR: [translated] The solution of encouraging the residents of Gaza to emigrate is one that we must advance. It’s the right, just, moral and humane solution. I call on the prime minister and the new foreign minister, who I congratulate on his appointment: Now is the time to coordinate an emigration project, a project to encourage the residents of Gaza to emigrate to the countries of the world. Let’s be clear: We have partners around the world whose help we can use. There are people around the world with whom we can advance this idea. Encouraging their emigration will allow us to bring home the residents of the communities near the Gaza border and the residents of the Gush Katif settlements.

AMY GOODMAN: Those were the words of Israel’s minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement rejecting Ben-Gvir’s comment, as well as those made by Bezalel Smotrich. Meanwhile, The Times of London reports Israeli officials have held secret talks with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and several other countries to take in Palestinians from Gaza. If you can talk about the history of this, Mouin? And also talk about when they refer to “voluntary migration” in Gaza. And also talk about Egypt and the pressure that’s being brought to bear on Egypt to open its borders to the Palestinians of Gaza.

MOUIN RABBANI: Yes, and voluntary immigration is now, referencing that article you mentioned, being marketed as humanitarian emigration. In other words, we’re doing these people a favor by ethnically cleansing them.

I think the problem here is that many people associate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians with the Israeli extreme right, with people like Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Netanyahu and so on. But the point I was seeking to make in that article, which is actually a lengthy Twitter thread that I then posted on Mondoweiss, is that ethnic cleansing, or what Zionists would call transfer, is intrinsic to Zionist and later Israeli policy towards the Palestinians from the very outset.

So, as early as 1895, Theodor Herzl, the founder of the contemporary political Zionist movement, wrote that we need to “spirit the penniless population across the borders” and find employment for it in other lands. If you go to the period between the British Mandate and the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, you find that the Zionist movement set up a Transfer Committee, with very clear terms of reference, to ensure that refugees who were expelled would not be able to return to Palestine, to destroy their villages, and things of that sort. And the Gaza Strip, in fact, with a population that consists of more than three-quarters of Palestinian refugees who were ethnically cleansed in 1948, has, since the 1950s, been a key target for depopulation by Israel, because it doesn’t want all these refugees living within sight, so to speak, of their former homes on its borders. And it has produced a number of proposals and initiatives over the years to achieve that goal, including even one in the late 1960s to send over some 60,000 Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Paraguay, in return for which the Mossad would discover that it no longer had the resources to hunt Nazi fugitives being sheltered by the Stroessner regime.

So, my point was really to demonstrate that this is not a recent policy proposal by the extreme fringes of the Israeli political spectrum, but has been intrinsic to mainstream Zionism and later Israeli policy from the very outset.

AMY GOODMAN: You say at the end of your piece, Mouin Rabbani, “As importantly, the 1948 Nakba did not defeat the Palestinians, who initiated their struggle from the camps of exile, those in the Gaza Strip most prominently among them. It would take a Blinken level of foolishness to assume the expulsion of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip would produce a different outcome.” Talk about Netanyahu’s goal to de-Hamasify Gaza, and what exactly that means, and the effect of the killing, at this point, of over 22,000 Palestinians.

MOUIN RABBANI: Yes. Well, that takes me back to the second part of your previous question, which I had neglected to answer, which is that at the outset of the current war, Israel saw that it had unqualified, unconditional Western support from its U.S. and European sponsors, and resurrected this long-standing ambition to cleanse the Gaza Strip of Palestinians.

And the proposal that was put front and center, literally on October 7th and onwards, was to move the population of the Gaza Strip to the Sinai Desert, to Egypt. And this was an idea that was very enthusiastically embraced by the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And on his first trip to the region, he actually sought to market this to Washington’s Arab allies. And I think, you know, he is somewhat of a clueless airhead when it comes to the Middle East. And I think he was expecting to hear from U.S. allies, Arab allies, you know, “How can we help you help our Israeli friends?” And instead he was met with categorical refusal and rejection for this proposal, first and foremost by Egypt.

And the U.S. and European governments later came out with a position that they would oppose forced displacement from the Gaza Strip, leaving open the possibility of what we’re seeing now, an Israeli military campaign, a primary objective of which is to make the Gaza Strip unfit for human habitation, and then the encouragement of voluntary, or what is now even being called humanitarian, emigration in order to achieve the ethnic cleansing. And I think the genocide that we’re now seeing in the Gaza Strip — and this is something, of course, that’s going to be adjudicated by the International Court of Justice in The Hague after South Africa recently made an application under the Genocide Convention — you know, all these things put together making the Gaza Strip unfit for human habitation.

AMY GOODMAN: Mouin Rabbani, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you so much for being with us, Middle East analyst, co-editor of Jadaliyya. We’ll link to your piece, “The long history of Zionist proposals to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip.”

Happy belated birthday to Dennis McCormick! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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