As the Middle East Reels, a New Option Takes Shape: Expulsion

Years of careful diplomacy have been overturned by the current wave of violence, forcing the major powers in the region and beyond to look for new policies, however extreme

As the Middle East Reels, a New Option Takes Shape: Expulsion
The U.N. has set up tents at a refugee camp for Palestinians in Khan Yunis, in the Gaza Strip near the Egyptian border. (Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP via Getty Images)

“If we are talking about the idea of forced migration, the Negev desert in Israel is there.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was speaking at a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this week, addressing a proposal that, to the alarm of both Arab leaders and their publics, has been repeatedly and increasingly floated in the run-up to Israel’s expected ground offensive into the Gaza Strip.

The idea, which has gone through multiple iterations over the decades since Israel’s founding, by turns illegal, unworkable or extreme, posits the wholesale population transfer of Gazans into the Sinai. (In earlier versions of the proposal, which has rarely been taken seriously, Egypt would directly administer the Gaza Strip itself.)

The idea has long been a nonstarter for Arabs — adding a couple of million people living in the most impoverished and brutalized part of the region to Egypt is replete with economic, logistical and security challenges in the vast ungovernable expanse of the Sinai. But it also guarantees the permanent displacement of Gaza’s population, who are unlikely ever to return home.

Egypt, under successive governments, has been aware of that particular danger, which is why Sisi warned this week that any displacement of Palestinians from their land would be followed by the displacement of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan. “What is happening now in Gaza is an attempt to push citizens to seek refuge and migrate to Egypt,” he said.

The war in Gaza has now continued for two weeks, and only appears to be growing more complex. The frantic diplomacy of American, Arab and European leaders is part of an attempt to find alternative solutions to a ground invasion by Israel that could escalate into a regional war. The idea of expelling the Palestinians from Gaza is clearly one such proposal.

Another, reportedly raised in talks between President Joe Biden and his Israeli counterparts, and which was going to be a subject of discussion in a now-scrapped summit with the Egyptians and Jordanians, was for Hamas itself to be relocated, much like Yasser Arafat’s PLO, which was exiled to Tunisia for years.

These are extreme suggestions, but they have come about because of a desperation both within and beyond the region for new ideas, after so many decades shaped by the same thinking. After all, it was that thinking that led to this war.

Despite the long-standing prima facie rejection by the Arab world of the idea of expulsion, this solution is, apparently, increasingly seen as more feasible than asking Israel to conduct its upcoming war on the strip with a judicious amount of violence or to figure out a way to actually coexist with the Palestinians. It has been floated by European and Israeli officials without irony, which likely prompted Sisi’s response as well as off-the-record comments by Egyptian and Arab officials to the media pointing out the double standard of feigning concern for the human rights of Palestinians while orchestrating a plan to deport them en masse under pain of death.

The idea has yet to be taken up publicly by the U.S. as a potential way forward and has prompted a search for alternative creative solutions that could eliminate the need for a ground offensive. Yet it is now in the mainstream and a subject of open debate because of the intractable nature of the conflict and the politics of Israel’s ruling coalition.

Just this week, a right-wing Israeli think tank headed by the country’s former national security adviser published a report on various scenarios for the future of Gaza — including a detailed plan for the expulsion of its Palestinian population to Egypt. This wasn’t the proposal that Sisi was responding to, but the appearance of the paper demonstrates that consideration of such a scenario isn’t relegated to the fringes of Israel’s security establishment.

In the paper by the Jerusalem-based Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy and National Security, only one suggestion for a post-Hamas future is deemed viable for Israel’s long-term security: the “transfer of the Gaza population to Sinai or other countries.”

The author of the report, research fellow Raphael BenLevi, concedes that this is a “radical option” and “controversial.” He then lays out how the international community, particularly the U.S., Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, should work with Israel to assist in the wholesale transfer of 2 million people.

BenLevi says Washington can play a crucial role by pressuring these countries to either contribute resources or take in displaced Palestinians themselves. Although international law says forced displacement of civilians is a war crime, BenLevi argues that transferring the Gazans to Sinai could be legally justified as “self-defense” in a time of war.

The Misgav think tank is not very well known in Israel and was founded around a decade ago “to provide a more hawkish stance in Israel’s policy community,” said Yehuda Mirsky, a professor at Brandeis University and former U.S. State Department official. Even though Mirsky emphasized that Misgav cannot speak for Israel’s military establishment, the fact that it is headed by Meir Ben-Shabbat, the former national security adviser who was instrumental in normalizing relations among Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in 2020, gives it weight. (At the time of publishing, Misgav had not responded to a request for comment by New Lines.)

Such a plan would have a major flaw from Israel’s perspective: It would place large numbers of Palestinians beyond the control and surveillance of Israel. Depending on who eventually came to run such an exclave, it could either give the Palestinian Authority the ability to control a population in a foreign country or see the rise of a new group. Both, from an Israeli security standpoint, would be immensely problematic.

Over the years, Israelis have tried various options to manage the Palestinian “problem.” Expulsion, although mooted by only a minor think tank, reflects a strand of thinking within Israel’s military establishment that externalizing the problem may solve it. Even Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, speaking earlier today, said at the end of the Gaza conflict that he wanted “the removal of Israel’s responsibility for day-to-day life in the Gaza Strip and the creation of a new security reality,” although without specifying how that would come about.

During Israel’s creation in 1948, Zionist militia groups and the Israeli army that grew out of them followed a blueprint called Plan Dalet, also known as Plan D. Officially adopted on March 10, 1948, it identified specific Palestinian cities and towns to be targeted and provided instructions for how to expel their inhabitants. An internal Israeli military intelligence document reveals that at least 75% of the Palestinians who fled did so as a result of “military actions by Zionist militias, psychological campaigns aimed at frightening Arabs into leaving, and dozens of direct expulsions,” scholars Joel Beinin and Lisa Hajjar note.

Indeed, even shortly after 1948, a plan to resettle Palestinians in the Sinai was tried. As the journalist Jonathan Adler has discussed in an essay for New Lines, in the early 1950s, the United Nations hatched a plan to resettle tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Sinai, thereby eliminating the Palestinian right of return. It ultimately failed because, as Adler writes, “The 1955 uprising in Gaza — what would become known as the March Intifada — forced U.N. officials to abandon refugee resettlement projects and recognize Palestinian claims to a political identity of their own.”

These ideas are part of a sudden realignment across the region as years of careful diplomacy have been upended. Powerful players like Iran and Saudi Arabia have been forced to pivot their policies and adapt. The Oct. 7 attack “just put aside all the rules of engagement” and “changed the whole situation in the Middle East,” says Ali Hashem, a journalist for Al Jazeera English in an interview from southern Lebanon on today’s podcast.

While Hashem doesn’t believe Iran had detailed knowledge of the attack, he says the Iranian leadership will recognize that the complete destruction of Hamas is, ultimately, a challenge to Iranian power — and thus may be forced to enter the fight.

“I think they’d prefer not to get into such a fight and just continue accumulating power, stockpiling weapons, and not getting into this now, or at least choosing the right time by themselves,” he says. “But the fact is that to Iran and to Hezbollah, if Israel is to annihilate Hamas and take Gaza, then they are going to be next on the list.” That in itself means that a long ground assault will make it more likely that Hezbollah enters the fray by opening a second front in the north. The justification for such an escalation would be the same one the Iranians used in 2012-13, as they tried to further their intervention in Syria. “The Iranian Supreme Leader said then: ‘We’re fighting in Aleppo and Mosul so that we don’t fight in Kermanshah.’”

Perhaps no country in the region has had its carefully laid plans so upended by this round of violence as Saudi Arabia, which appeared to be on a path to normalization with Israel, although the timeline was ambiguous.

Turki Al Faisal, the kingdom’s former intelligence chief, expressed some of this frustration earlier this week at a speech in Texas, when he condemned Hamas “for sabotaging the attempt of Saudi Arabia to reach a peaceful resolution to the plight of the Palestinian people.”

But speaking on New Lines’ podcast The Lede, Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute, says that while he does not believe Hamas’ goal in launching its attack was to undermine the normalization process, there will inevitably be a delay, even if only in the short term. “I think Saudi perception of Israel and Saudi perception of [what] a lack of a Palestinian state could mean for regional stability is going to be reconsidered a lot,” he says.

Aziz says that Saudi Arabia has long said there needs to be genuine movement toward Palestinian statehood, but that many analysts disregarded this as rhetoric. “I think people seem to just not really care what Saudi says about the Palestinians. They say, ‘Oh, Saudis don’t really care about them. Let’s focus on what Saudi Arabia is saying to Israel.’ And then my response to them is: ‘Listen, you can’t look at one without the other.’”

Two weeks on from Hamas’ surprise attack on the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war, in the midst of vast uncertainty about what the next days and weeks will bring, all those with interests in the region are looking for alternatives to a regional war — and wondering what the Middle East will look like at the end of it.

Written by Faisal Al Yafai, Rasha Elass, Danny Postel, Amie Ferris-Rotman and Kareem Shaheen, members of the New Lines editorial staff.

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