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Last weekend’s brutal assault by Hamas on civilian communities and military bases in southern Israel has been widely dubbed “Israel’s 9/11”. In one respect, at least, the analogy bears scrutiny. After al-Qaeda attacked the Pentagon and World Trade Centre, American neoconservatives harnessed the resultant shock and anger to put long-held contingency plans into motion. Israeli planners are likewise deliberating how to exploit the current conjuncture to advance their strategic objectives.
The Chinese word for “crisis” may not, in fact, comprise the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”. But previous Israeli leaders have well understood the importance of seizing the moment. In the late 1930s, David Ben-Gurion—Zionist leader and later Israel’s first prime minister — considered the prospects for expelling the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. “What is inconceivable in normal times,” he wrote in his diary, “is possible in revolutionary times”. When armed conflict erupted a decade later, Zionist forces put this maxim into practice.
In 2003, informed observers speculated that Israel might use the US-led “War on Terror” as a pretext to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians residing in the West Bank to Jordan. This scenario did not materialise. But in the wake of the Hamas assault, Israeli strategists appear once again to believe they are in revolutionary times. Over the past week, US and European leaders have lined up to “fully support” Israel’s right to “defend itself” against Hamas. These affirmations have been interpreted in Israel as a green light to “change the … strategic reality” in Gaza.
Former national security advisor Meir Ben Shabbat argues that “[t]he scale of the attack by Hamas provides legitimacy for Israel to take extraordinary measures”. An influential military think-tank advises that strong “[i]nternational legitimacy and freedom of offensive action for Israel” now “enables high aggressiveness”. A political source informs veteran correspondent Ben Caspit that Israel “must take advantage of the opportunity” to “go all out”. And former parliamentarian Ofer Shelah, considered a dove, urges that Israel exploit the unprecedented “global legitimacy for any type of action” to unleash an “unprecedented degree of power”.
What might these “unprecedented” and “extraordinary measures” entail?
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“Gaza is Being Flattened”
Between December 2008 and January 2009, Israeli forces destroyed some 6,000 homes in Gaza and killed more than 1,400 people, including 350 children. What Amnesty International termed “22 days of death and destruction” was designed, a United Nations (UN) inquiry found, to “punish, humiliate, and terrorise” Gaza’s civilian population.
Between July and August 2014, Israeli forces killed 2,200 people in Gaza, including 550 children, and destroyed fully 18,000 homes. Israeli combatants later recounted how the “insane amount of firepower” they deployed had inflicted “destruction on a whole other level”.
Israeli officials have promised to reprise this bloodletting on an even greater scale and they are delivering. Last week, Israel pulverized tiny Gaza with more bombs than the US dropped on Afghanistan in an average year between 2008 and 2019. On Friday, Médecins Sans Frontiers reported that “Gaza is being flattened” while Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees warned that the “scale and speed of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is bone-chilling. Gaza is fast becoming a hell hole”.
More than 2,600 people have already been killed in Gaza with over 9,500 injured and nearly half the population internally displaced. “[E]ntire neighbourhoods have been wiped out”. Essential health, water, and sanitation services are on the “brink of collapse” after Israel cut power, water, and food. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that Israel is “just getting started” as it moves “to change the Middle East”.
A Second Nakba?
The prevailing attitude to Gaza among Israeli officials was encapsulated in 1992 by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who wished it would “sink into the sea”. There are signs that Israel might seize the current “revolutionary” moment to cure its Gaza headache permanently.
Just as Ben-Gurion foresaw emptying Palestine of its Arab population amid the fog of war, and just as Zionist forces in fact expelled more than 700,000 Palestinians in the 1947-1948 “Nakba” (or “catastrophe”), so Israel’s present leadership might exploit global indignation over the Hamas attacks to drive out Gaza’s population. As one European Union diplomat acknowledged, “[w]e may be about to see massive ethnic cleansing”.
Reducing Gaza’s population has long been an Israeli desideratum. After Israel conquered the Strip in 1967, Israeli ministers contemplated the possibility of transferring large numbers of refugees from Gaza to Iraq, Libya, the West Bank, or Latin America. The following year, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol established a unit tasked with encouraging Gazans to emigrate.
Last Friday, Israel ordered the approximately 1.1 million civilians residing in northern Gaza to evacuate to the south. The International Committee of the Red Cross condemned this instruction as “not compatible with international law” while the UN Commissioner for Human Rights urged that it be “rescinded”. But the Associated Press reported the same afternoon that a “mass exodus” from northern Gaza was underway. Since then, more than 600,000 people have fled.
Israel might have ordered the evacuation to facilitate its looming ground offensive or to provide an albeit threadbare legal alibi for the civilian deaths that will attend this. Either way, if northern Gaza is substantially depopulated, Israeli forces will be at liberty to reoccupy the sector and declare it a closed military area. Israel already enforces a “buffer zone” along Gaza’s side of the perimeter fence which it expanded during previous escalations. The expansion might this time be much larger while it is hard to see why Israel would permit displaced inhabitants to return. Indeed, there might be little left standing for them to return to.
Gaza is already among the world’s most densely populated areas and the UN has long described conditions there as “unliveable”. Egypt has so far rejected proposals to allow civilians safe passage into the Sinai and urged Palestinians to stay put. But if more than 2 million people should find themselves crammed into Gazan’s southern half, as Israel continues to bombard them, the pressure on Egypt to open Rafah crossing might become irresistible. A trickle of refugees could easily become a flood.
Prominent Israeli officials and commentators have anticipated exactly this scenario. Senior lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, now part of the ruling coalition and a leading figure in Israel’s most popular party, declares that “Gaza must be smaller by the end of the war”. Giora Eiland, former head of Israel’s National Security Council, proposes that Gazans be instructed to “leave for Egypt or gather on the seashore” while Israel renders the territory “temporarily, or permanently, impossible to live in”. Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon argues that “Gazans have large areas in the Sinai into which they can evacuate” and where the international community can “set up tent cities for them”. Energy Minister Israel Katz instructs “[a]ll the civilian population” in Gaza “to leave immediately”.
Influential commentator Arel Segal fantasises that, in a “moral world”, Israel would “exile all of Gaza to the Sinai”. Right-wing broadcaster Shimon Riklin enthuses that “we are getting closer to the moment when masses will completely abandon the Strip”. Likud MK Amit Halevy has called on Gaza residents to either turn against Hamas or “get out of Gaza” and urged a “crushing blow” that will make “400,000 refugees flee through the Rafah crossing”. And his fellow Likud parliamentarian, Ariel Kallner, looks forward to a second “Nakba”.
A Wider War
In its previous assaults on Gaza, the level of destruction wreaked by Israel ran up against limits set by regional as well as international opinion. But neither constraint now operates to the same degree. The Gulf regimes have moved toward normalising relations with Israel. Western backing for Israel has been fulsome to the point where the US State Department is actively “discouraging diplomats … from … suggesting the US wants to see less violence”. And growing unrest in the West Bank cannot be characterised as a second front.
There are many unknown variables in what remains a volatile situation. At this point, the only clear factor with the potential to deter Israel is the threat of intervention from the north. The US has warned Hezbollah against joining the war and moved battleships into the region to reinforce the point. But Iran has promised that “war crimes” in Gaza will “receive a response from the … [resistance] axis” while Hezbollah informs that it stands “prepared” and “fully ready” to perform its “duties”.
The people of Gaza have been occupied for over half a century, blockaded for nearly two decades, and subjected to periodic massacres. Around 70% of the population are refugees and more than half are children. If Israel attempts to expel them again, it will be difficult for Hezbollah to avoid entering the fray. A wider and more perilous regional conflagration could then ensue.