Tariq, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used for his safety, was among the first displaced residents to venture back to their homes in Gaza this week after a partial withdrawal of Israeli forces from the north. They found destroyed buildings, destroyed roads, piles of rubble – some with decomposing bodies yet to be collected – and great uncertainty about their future.
Amid the gradual shift away from all-out war in some parts of Gaza, the fate of the Strip and its 2.1 million people remains far from clear. As some citizens returned to their destroyed neighborhoods, prominent politicians in Israel wondered whether they should return home at all.
Controversial proposals by some Israeli officials to evacuate Gazans to camps in Egypt or other countries are causing divisions with Washington, Europe and the United Nations, and have been included in a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice alleging “genocide” in Gaza. . Far-right members of the ruling coalition proposed sending displaced Palestinians to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the European Union, or Chile.
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The Washington Post reported in December that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged President Biden and other US officials to pressure Egypt to open its border with Gaza and accept Palestinian refugees. A report in Israeli media last week said that Netanyahu was in talks with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to receive “voluntary migrants” from Gaza.
Netanyahu's office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment. The Congolese government did not respond to requests for comment.
Critics say such proposals could amount to ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian enclave.
“Forced displacement is strictly prohibited as a serious violation of international humanitarian law [international humanitarian law] “Words matter,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, said on Wednesday, in response to calls by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for the Palestinians to leave Gaza.
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“What should be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage immigration,” Smotrich said in an interview with Israeli Army Radio on Sunday. “If there were 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million Arabs, the whole discussion the next day would be completely different.”
Ben Gvir echoed that call on Tuesday, to publish X, previously Twitter, said that “the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the Strip to return to their homes and live in safety and the protection of Israeli army soldiers.”
American officials say they have been reassured that the proposals do not represent official Israeli policy. But on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry issued a rebuke to Smotrich and Ben Gvir, saying in a statement that “this speech is inflammatory and irresponsible.” We have been clear, firm and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land.”
Israeli officials privately say the proposals stem from the political imperatives of Netanyahu's coalition and his reliance on far-right parties to maintain power.
Ben Gvir and Smotrich were excluded from the emergency war cabinet, where security policy is set. But their statements resonate well among settlers and religious activists who want to see Israel annex Gaza rather than hand it over to a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, as American officials have called for.
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“The professionals in the military and the security establishment know that this is not within the realm of possibility,” said a person with direct knowledge of the talks within the government, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “They know there is no future without the people of Gaza in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority as part of the government.”
But the transfer proposals, and Netanyahu's refusal to refute them, continue to sour relations with the international community as opposition grows to Israel's war on Hamas, which has killed more than 22,000 people in Gaza and displaced nearly 90 percent of its population.
“This is really Israel shooting itself in the foot,” Shira Efron, research director at the Israel Policy Forum, said of the proposals. “It would be helpful if Netanyahu came out with his voice and said this is not politics, but this is election season and he has to meet the needs of his base.”
Next week, Israel will respond to charges made by South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague that its actions in Gaza amounted to genocide or a failure to prevent genocide. Ten pages of the 84-page dossier are devoted to Israeli officials and soldiers, in their own words, calling for the forced transfer of Palestinians and the destruction of Gaza.
Israel strongly rejects these allegations, which its spokesman Elon Levy described as a “ridiculous, bloody slander in South Africa.”
We have made clear in word and deed that we are targeting the monsters of October 7 and are devising ways to uphold international law, including the principles of proportionality, precaution and distinction, in the context of a counter-terrorism battlefield that no army has faced before. Levy said at a press conference.
But even some international law experts who believe Israel adheres to the laws of war say rhetoric coming from the far right is undermining the country's defense.
“It's really alarming to look at the list,” Amichai Cohen, a law professor at Israel's Ono Academic College, said of the data collected by South Africa. “Although I know most of them were either coming from people with no seat at the decision-making table or were taken out of context.”
Despite all the devastation in Gaza, and fears that much of it has become unlivable, Tariq and other Gazans who ventured home told The Washington Post they would never leave.
Tariq said: “We would rather die and be buried under the soil of Gaza than go out and live in any other country.”
His family saw fewer tanks on the perilous return trip, and the sounds of gunfire and artillery were more intermittent. But their society was in ruins.
“The streets, schools, infrastructure, everything here was completely destroyed,” Tariq said.
Reports of relative calm also led to the return of Moamen Al-Harthani, 29, and his family to the Jabalia neighborhood on Sunday.
His hopes of building the five-story building were dashed once he arrived at his building: it had been completely demolished. “I couldn't remove even a single piece of cloth,” he said.
While they were scanning the neighborhood, they found empty ammunition boxes and plastic handcuffs in a house. He added that the walls of some houses were stained with blood, while the walls of other houses had Hebrew words engraved on them.
However, Al-Harthani is determined to survive and rebuild.
“How do you think I will leave Gaza?” Asked. “All I ask now is for the war to end and for me to live in the ruins of my home.”
Harb reported from London and Parker reported from Cairo. Catherine Horreld contributed to this report from Nairobi.