Israeli Right Resurrects ‘Voluntary Transfer’ of Palestinians, Despite 50 Years of Failure

The proposal by a ‘senior government official’ to assist emigration from Gaza joins the efforts of esteemed Israeli leaders and professors, but they haven’t been able to suppress Palestinian aspirations

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin with soldiers in Sinai in 1967.
Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin with soldiers in Sinai in 1967. Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

On Monday, when a “senior government official” said Israel was willing to help Palestinians emigrate from the Gaza Strip, it sounded to many people like empty talk. But this statement follows a series of Israeli attempts at demographic manipulations, so what the official said shouldn’t be played down. Still, Israel has a history of utter failure in getting Palestinians to respond to material enticements to emigrate.

The remarks and the speed with which the leader of the right-wing Yamina alliance, Ayelet Shaked, came out in support of the government official’s philosophy shows the strength of the Israeli delusion that Palestinian demands and national aspirations will disappear, diminish or be defeated through emigration.

Immediately following the start of the occupation in 1967, the Israeli government’s inclination was to annex Gaza to Israel while emptying it of most of its refugees. The assumption was that it would be easy to uproot the refugees once again. The proposed destinations for them thrown around by the cabinet were Sinai, the West Bank, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Iraq and South America.

In the book “1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East,” published in Hebrew in 2005 and in English in 2007, Tom Segev provides details on proposals such as these to uproot the refugees once again. Above all, the details and the way the initiatives were considered says something about their proponents, who maintained an arrogant colonial way of thinking, treating the Palestinians as subjects devoid of a connection to their homeland, like chess pieces that could be moved around the board.

One of the plans that sounds nearly utopian today, when Israel has been barring Gazans by any means possible from going to the West Bank, was to relocate Palestinian refugees from Gaza to the West Bank. That was proposed in September 1967 by Yosef Weitz, a head of the Jewish National Fund and an advocate of population transfer even before Israel was established.

Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira of the religious Zionist movement actually proposed absorbing 200,000 refugees from Gaza in Israel proper and to balance their demographic presence by increasing Jewish immigration. Yigal Allon, who was labor minister in 1967, supported settling them in Sinai at El-Arish and the West Bank, excluding the Jordan Valley.

Segev writes about the proposals by three professors: Roberto Bachi, the director of the Central Bureau of Statistics, mathematician Aryeh Dvoretzky and economist Michael Bruno, who proposed transferring 40,000 families, about 250,000 people (and more than half of Gaza’s population at the time) to the West Bank over 10 years.

Palestinian demonstrators take cover at the border fence in the southern Gaza Strip, June 21, 2019. Credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

The professors assumed that the project would spawn major economic growth. Housing Minister Mordechai Bentov of the left-wing Mapam party supported it. In fact, some families did agree to move to the West Bank and live to this day in some of its refugee camps, but their numbers are much smaller than the 40,000 that was proposed.

In June, the website +972 Magazine wrote about a new study on the work of these three professors, framing it as the work of a committee that also included sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt. Although it was said that the research was based on the newly revealed documents, Segev, who relied on documents he found in the Israel State Archives, quoted from conversations that the professors had with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.

Compassionate Israel

Segev wrote in his typical sarcastic style: “Bachi gave Eshkol alarming information: a survey had shown that infant mortality in Gaza might decrease. ‘If we continue to be as compassionate as we are now,’ he said, infant mortality in the territories might even come to rival that of Israeli Arabs. ‘This is a shocking situation,’ he observed.”

Dvoretzky proposed transferring Gaza refugees to the homes of Palestinians who were uprooted in 1967, particularly in the Jordan Valley. Segev writes that the mathematician explained to Eshkol why this was “worthwhile.”

“The more Gaza refugees occupied the houses of people who had recently left the West Bank, the less chance there was that those people would return. ‘In addition, you are provoking internal strife among the Palestinians themselves.’”

The unconcealed assumption behind efforts to encourage migration to the West Bank was that many of the migrants would continue on to Jordan. But Segev wrote that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “was opposed to resettling the refugees on the West Bank, insisting that they belonged with [King] Hussein – i.e.,with Jordan, not the West Bank. Then Dayan added, ‘I don’t mind if they all emigrate.’”

From the beginning of 1968, Segev wrote, a group of five Israelis worked in Gaza via collaborators who went around the refugee camps and promised people money if they agreed to leave. The military government, the Shin Bet security service and the prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs stood behind the group’s activities. Eshkol appointed Ada Sereni coordinator among these groups. She was born in Italy, a kibbutznik with hawkish political views and the widow of Enzo Sereni, a parachutist from the pre-state Jewish community who died at Dachau.

Palestinians flee into Jordan via the damaged Allenby Bridge, 1967.Credit: AP

Segev writes that Ada Sereni was selected for the job because Eshkol hoped that her connections in Italy would permit the transfer of a large number of refugees from Gaza to Libya, a former Italian colony. In Israel, the efforts promoting the population transfer were kept a secret, but the activities in Gaza were in the open, as was the money offered to those leaving and the form they had to fill out, stating that they were leaving of their own free will.

At the same time, the Israeli Foreign Ministry – apparently in coordination with the Mossad, according to Segev – was encouraging the emigration of Palestinian refugees to Brazil and other parts of Latin America. The director of the Jewish aid organization the Joint Distribution Committee also helped in attempts to organize the emigration of Palestinian refugees.

According to Segev, in May 1968, Ada Sereni reported that in the first three months of her work, about 15,000 people had left Gaza. The Central Bureau of Statistics found that in the first six months of 1968, about 20,000 Palestinians had emigrated.

What the Israeli politicians and professors didn’t understand in 1968 was that the refugees’ hope to return to the towns and villages they had originally come from in what became Israel proper hadn’t waned. Still, a sense of solidarity and of a community with a common identity had developed in Gaza. Leaving voluntarily – permanently – was not considered an option, in contrast to leaving to study or work elsewhere and return during vacation periods (as the Egyptians had permitted when they administered Gaza before the 1967 Six-Day War).

Here and there, the documents reveal Israeli intentions to create pressure to encourage emigration. In a note from a Foreign Ministry official, Segev learned that the Israeli commander in Gaza, Mordechai Gur, was inclined to lower living standards in the Strip to spur residents to leave.

Even before Ada Sereni’s appointment, Eshkol had hoped that “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move from the Gaza Strip .... Perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither.” My Haaretz colleague Ofer Aderet included this quote in an article published in English on November 17, 2017, based on classified minutes of a debate by Eshkol’s cabinet.

Just one method worked

Even before the publication of these and similar statements, some Palestinians had concluded that the worsening living conditions were part of a Zionist plot and that the line between gestures encouraging emigration and worsening living conditions for that purpose was a very fine one.

The lack of water in Gaza is much worse than mere yellowing orchards. Also, the poverty and suffocating enclosure of the Strip are dozens of times worse than in 1967 and 1968. The Israeli blockade, which has tightened gradually since 1991, is the number-one factor in the economic, occupational and environmental decline in Gaza, with all the social, health and psychological ramifications. The result is a sharp rise in the number of people who want to leave.

The last known attempt by Israel interpreted as soliciting people to leave came in 2016. In February of that year Israel declared that Gazans could travel abroad via the Allenby Bridge crossing the Jordan River, but on condition that they pledge not to return for a year, not to stop on the way and not to remain in the Palestinian Authority enclaves in the West Bank.

In May of this year, the absence period was lowered to six months. Israel’s willingness to let people leave via the Allenby crossing was considered a relief measure, because since 1997 Israel had prohibited Gazans from entering or exiting via Jordan except with prior permission, which was granted very rarely. This prohibition went against the Oslo Accords, which stated that the parties would treat Gaza and the West Bank as a single entity. Egypt – aware of Israel’s hallucinations about a mass departure of Palestinians – has since 2005 tightened restrictions on passage via the Rafah crossing, to the point of closing it entirely for months on end.

Despite the many Palestinians who would like to emigrate, only a few hundred people took advantage of the new Israeli regulation and left via the Allenby Bridge. The opening of the Rafah crossing for longer periods over the past year has let them return to Gaza without reference to pledges they signed.

In 1967 Israel took upon itself the authority to revoke residency from Palestinians who were not present in the occupied territory during the war or during the census conducted there, or who went abroad and remained outside the territories for an extended period. This was the only method of “encouraging emigration” that worked.

This authority was taken away from Israel with the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1994 (although not in East Jerusalem). Even those who since that time left Gaza and the West Bank because of deteriorating conditions and disappointments continue to hold a Palestinian passport and Palestinian ID number, not to mention a deep connection and emotional involvement. Some discover that other countries don’t welcome everyone. Many try any way they can to register their children in the Palestinian population registry.

But despite all the failures, Israel’s expanding right wing continues to hallucinate about “voluntary transfer.” The Palestinians long ago proved that there is no such thing.

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