Does the U.S. Really Want a Mass Expulsion in Gaza?

Israel has ordered more than a million people to leave northern Gaza, presumably to prepare for an imminent ground offensive. Its military strategists appear to be planning the depopulation and reoccupation of at least part of an area home to around 2.3 million people — nearly half of them children — and most of them descended from people driven from their homes before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. We must understand that these are human beings at grave risk, not just numbers.

Consider what some in the Israeli defense establishment have said.

“The State of Israel has no choice but to turn Gaza into a place that is temporarily or permanently impossible to live in,” a reservist major general, Giora Eiland, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, an Israeli newspaper. “Creating a severe humanitarian crisis in Gaza is a necessary means to achieve the goal.” He added, “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.” Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, “We are fighting human animals, and we are acting accordingly.” Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian declared that in Gaza, “there will be no electricity and no water. There will only be destruction. You wanted hell; you will get hell.”

The depopulation of Gaza would be manifestly inhumane and a violation of international law. President Biden and his advisers should ask themselves how it can be in the national interest of the United States to allow another mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homes. Such a cataclysm would be a second nakba, or catastrophe, as the displacement of 1948 is called. The United States would thereby be a partner with Israel in creating a future for the Palestinians that offers only periodic death, destruction and dispossession and permanent subjugation or expulsion.

Israeli forces have attacked Gaza six times from 2006 until the recent siege, killing well over 4,000 people. According to the Jerusalem-based human rights watchdog B’Tselem, that figure includes 405 in 2006, 1,391 in 2008 and 2009, 167 in 2012, 2,203 in 2014, 232 in 2021 and 33 in 2022. Each time, casualties for Palestinian civilians have outnumbered combatants.

Even though Israel has left Gaza to Hamas control, the area is still under de jure Israeli military occupation under international law, according to the United Nations and some humanitarian groups. It is also practically so, given that Israel can cut off access to electricity, water, fuel and food for much of the territory.

The Biden administration has offered what is effectively unconditional support to Israel as it attacks Gaza, citing the killings of approximately 900 Israeli civilians and hundreds of soldiers and police officers during the Hamas assault and the captivity of roughly 150 people.

Palestinian deaths in Gaza and the West Bank as of Saturday numbered at least 2,228, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. Most of the dead on both sides are civilians, including at least 724 children in Gaza, according to Defense for Children International. It is worth noting that before the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, at least 200 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank this year, as well as 30 Israelis.

Unremarkably, the loss of Palestinian life has had little impact on U.S. policy: For some, it seems not all innocent civilian lives are equal. At the same time, U.S. diplomats have apparently been asking Egypt to take in Palestinians whom Israel would drive out of Gaza.

These echoes of the 1948 nakba may only be the beginning. If Washington encourages Israel down this path, it may trigger a much wider regional conflagration. The flight or expulsion of at least a quarter-million Palestinians from Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Beisan and other localities before the Israeli declaration of independence that May helped trigger the first war between the Arab states and Israel. The war and subsequent expulsion or flight of even more Palestinians later in 1948, for a total of roughly 750,000 people, then helped precipitate decades of periodic conflict.

The last time a president and his advisers allowed outrage at unimaginable loss to drive policy was after Sept. 11, when they unleashed two of the most disastrous wars in American history, which devastated two countries and resulted in the deaths of a half million or more people and brought many people around the globe to revile the United States.

We are on the brink of an equally fateful decision in Washington over which Israeli actions to condone in Gaza, one that would make the United States a full party to all that follows, whether Mr. Biden and his team realize it or not.

It is past time for the United States to cease repeating empty words about a two-state solution while providing money, weapons and diplomatic support for systematic, calculated Israeli actions that have made that solution inconceivable — as it has for roughly half a century.

It is past time for the United States to cease meekly acquiescing to Israel’s use of violence and more violence as its reflexive response to Palestinians who have lived for 56 years under a stifling military occupation.

It is past time to accept that American efforts to monopolize a tragically misnamed peace process have helped Israel to entrench what multiple international human rights groups have defined as a system of apartheid that has produced only more war and suffering.

The only possible solution is one that ends the oppression of one people by another and guarantees absolutely equal rights and security for both peoples.

Rashid Khalidi is a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University and a co-editor of The Journal of Palestine Studies.

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