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Evidence of ethnic cleansing growing in West Bank and Gaza

Evidence of ethnic cleansing growing in West Bank and Gaza

Increasingly brutal IDF activity, official Israeli rhetoric, and settler-led violence is making it harder to deny a policy designed to expel Palestinians

Analysis | Middle East

Even if one were to take at face value Israel’s declarations that its assault on the Gaza Strip and its two million residents is all about “destroying Hamas,” the Israeli operation is too misguided for the United States or any other power to support or condone it.

Hamas cannot be destroyed with bombs and a ground invasion, and even if it could, the operation is worsening, not enhancing, the future security of Israeli citizens.

But the Israeli declarations should not be taken at face value in any event. Other motivations are also likely behind the Israeli assault. Almost two months into the Israeli offensive, the evidence is increasingly suggesting that Israel is engaged in nothing less than ethnic cleansing of Palestinians who live in the Strip.

One is the sheer scale and indiscriminate nature of Israel’s military attacks. The leveling of entire neighborhoods and the inflicting of civilian casualties far outnumbering any military ones, with little evidence of any positive result beyond the capture and display of some empty tunnels, can hardly be described as an operation sharply focused on destroying Hamas.

Consider the following numbers. Israeli officials claim that their operation in Gaza has so far killed 5,000 Hamas fighters. The officials admit that this is a squishy estimate, and the outside world has no way of knowing whether it is even close to being true. But assume for the moment that it is. By the Israeli military’s own estimates, Hamas’ military wing numbered about 30,000 fighters at the start of this war, implying there are still 25,000 yet to be eliminated. The latest estimates of the fast-rising count of total Palestinian casualties from the war so far are 16,000 dead, including more than 5,000 children.

Do the math. At the current pace and with Israel’s current methods, finishing the supposed job of destroying the Hamas military wing would entail almost 100,000 dead Palestinians, including more than 30,000 dead children. And that does not include the damage from Israel going after the rest of Hamas besides its military wing, including the senior leadership whom Israel has vowed to kill, as well as the Hamas-run civil administration of the Gaza Strip, which Israel has vowed to eliminate. Nor does it consider that the rate of civilian casualties from Israeli military operations currently escalating in the southern part of the Strip — now crammed with those who had fled the north — is likely to be at least as high as from the previous operations in the north.

These numbers are not only orders of magnitude greater than anything that could be justified as a response to the brutality Hamas committed in Israel in October. They strongly suggest that in addition to eliminating Hamas, killing civilians and pushing as many Palestinians as possible out of Gaza is an Israeli objective.

The Israeli military’s claim to have used warnings to try to reduce civilian casualties has become little more than a cruel joke. Residents are ordered to flee their homes but then are bombed anyway, either en route or at the location to which they were told to flee. Then they are ordered to move again — if there is any place at all they can go — and get bombed yet again. QR codes on leaflets promising information about safe zones are useless with communications knocked out and most Palestinians having no access to the internet.

Israel is not even bothering to use its previous “knock on the roof” practice of using a small munition to warn occupants of a building that it was about to be destroyed — as if it ever were acceptable to bomb someone’s home as long as they are advised a few minutes earlier that it is going to be bombed.

Further evidence of Israel’s objectives in Gaza comes from simultaneous events in the West Bank. For the last two months, Israeli settlers there, acting largely with the acquiescence of Israeli authorities, have been using violence and intimidation to drive longtime Palestinian residents out of their villages.

Then there is the rhetoric of Israeli political leaders, which some observers have described as genocidal. Examples over the past two months abound. About Gaza, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said, “we will eliminate everything.” Meanwhile, deputy Knesset speaker Nissim Vaturi said of Palestinians in Gaza, “expel them all,” while Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter said, “we are now rolling out the Gaza nakba,” (the original nakba, or catastrophe, being the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948). Heritage Minister Amachai Eliyahu suggested that Israel should consider dropping a nuclear weapon on Gaza.

Added to all this is evidence of planning within the Israeli government. A report in October revealed a proposal from the intelligence ministry to transfer the entire population of the Gaza Strip to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, to be housed first in tents and then in permanently constructed cities. This proposal did not explain how Israel would overcome Egypt’s strong opposition to any such population transfer, but other reports confirmed that Israeli leaders and diplomats were quietly proposing to other governments the transfer of several hundred thousand Gazans to Egypt.

The Israelis contended this would be a temporary movement for the duration of the current war, but their interlocutors rejected the idea given the likelihood that such a displacement, like earlier displacements of Palestinians, would become permanent.

More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reported to have tasked his U.S.-born Minister of Strategic Affairs, Ron Dermer, with developing a plan to “dilute” the population of the Gaza Strip to a minimum. That story was broken by the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, which has supported and is considered to have good access to Netanyahu.

As a possible reflection of such planning, other Israeli press reports that a proposal has already been quietly floated with members of the U.S. Congress to have two million Gazans move through Egypt for ultimate settlement both there and in Iraq, Turkey, and Yemen. The United States would be expected to use aid to those countries as leverage to pressure them into accepting the arrangement.

Since the Hamas attack on October 7 demonstrated that the conflict with the Palestinians could not be removed from the regional equation, the Israeli government has rejected as forcefully as ever the only avenue for ending such troubles, which is to resolve the conflict through peaceful negotiations that permit Palestinian self-determination, whether through a two-state solution or equal rights in one state.

Instead, it is increasingly looking like Israel is trying to remove the Palestinians themselves from the equation through death and displacement. Israel’s apparent strategy is no more likely to bring peace to Israelis or anyone else than its earlier gambits, as long as there are dissatisfied exiles. For just one example, think of how Israel went after the exiled Palestine Liberation Organization beginning in the 1980s and how it led to multiple wars, the rise of Lebanese Hezbollah, and the loss of almost any hope for stability in Lebanon.

The Biden administration has shown some signs of recognizing what is going on. Vice President Harris, speaking at the climate meeting in Dubai, stated that “under no circumstances will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank.” And the United States has begun imposing visa bans on Israeli settlers guilty of violence in the West Bank.

But those signs fall short of fully dissociating Washington from abhorrent policies and practices — a dissociation necessary to spare the United States from any more of the international opprobrium it already has incurred through its association with Israeli conduct.

Palestinians fleeing north Gaza walk towards the south, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in the central Gaza Strip, November 9, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem/File Photo

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