Mass exiling of Palestinians is 'a baseless illusion'

Israel denies it is talking to other countries about absorbing Gazan immigrants

Senior official pushes back on Zman Yisrael report Jerusalem talking to Congo and others, says Smotrich can’t carry out controversial idea; cabinet to talk post-war Gaza on Thursday

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference on the planned construction of a new railway line from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the city of Eilat, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a press conference on the planned construction of a new railway line from the northern city of Kiryat Shmona to the city of Eilat, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

A senior Israeli official on Wednesday evening denied a report from The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site Zman Yisrael earlier in the day that Israel is “in talks with the Congo” to discuss the possibility of relocating thousands of Gazans to the African country and other nations.

“There are those in Israel who think that there is a willingness on the part of Gazans to emigrate voluntarily,” said the official in a briefing to Israeli journalists, on condition of anonymity.

“It’s a baseless illusion in my opinion. No country will absorb 2 million people, or 1 million, or 100,000, or 5,000. I don’t know where that idea came from.”

“It could be between Congo and Gazans, but Israel is not conducting any talks with any country on this issue,” the official continued. “I don’t want to say it’s fake, but it can’t be through us since we have no connection to it. [The Congolese] can talk to the Gazans and ask them to move to Congo.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir have recently called for Gazans to be resettled outside of the Strip, drawing widespread international condemnation.

“Let’s say Smotrich wanted to do it, what can he do? We’re not part of this. We are not in a position where we can bring people from here to Congo… we’re not in the loop,” said the official.

Travelers crossing from the Gaza Strip enter the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Palestinian enclave following their evacuation on December 18, 2023. (AFP)

Zman Yisrael reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition is conducting secret contacts for accepting thousands of immigrants from Gaza with Congo, in addition to other nations.

“Congo will be willing to take in migrants, and we’re in talks with others,” a senior source in the security cabinet said.

Let’s say Smotrich wanted to do it, what can he do?

Gaza is facing a growing humanitarian crisis amid the Israel-Hamas war, which was sparked on October 7 when thousands of terrorists stormed the border and rampaged through southern Israeli communities, massacring some 1,200 and kidnapping approximately 240 more as hostages in the Strip.

Last Monday, Netanyahu told a Likud faction meeting that he was working to facilitate the voluntary migration of Gazans to other countries.

“Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it,” he said.

Also Wednesday, France and Germany added their voices to the growing international condemnation of Smotrich and Ben Gvir for their “voluntary emigration” idea.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, during a press briefing on June 23, 2023. (Screen capture/ YouTube)

The United States issued its own condemnation Tuesday. In a relatively rare, unprompted statement, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called their comments “inflammatory and irresponsible.”

Beyond the fate of Gaza’s population, the desired post-war order in Gaza is a question that continues to vex Israeli policymakers. The official said that a high-stakes meeting in which the National Security Council and the Strategic Affairs Ministry were slated to present recommendations for the day after the war against Hamas, originally scheduled for Tuesday, was delayed in the wake of the lethal strike on senior Hamas leader Saleh Al-Arouri in Beirut.

The presentation will take place on Thursday evening instead, and the details of the recommendations will be made public.

The meeting is expected to examine the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) after the war.

A man prepares traditional unleavened bread on an open fire at a United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) school in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, where internally displaced Palestinians were taking shelter on November 14, 2023 during the Israel-Hamas war. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

The official offered rare praise for oft-pilloried UNRWA.

“At the moment, we don’t see another international player in Gaza that knows how to transport trucks to shelter areas,” the official said. “For the first time in its history perhaps, UNRWA is doing something that serves the humanitarian needs of Gaza’s residents. They are receiving food, water and medicine from activities UNRWA is part of.”

Last week, Channel 12 news reported that Israel is hoping to push UNRWA out of the Gaza Strip post-war.

Israel has long accused UNRWA of perpetuating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by extending refugee status to millions of descendants of Palestinians who fled or were forced out of homes in today’s Israel at the time of the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, rather than limiting such a status only to the original refugees, as is the norm with most refugee populations worldwide.

Israel and other groups have also long argued that UNRWA school materials glorify terrorism and anti-Israel incitement.

Palestinian demonstrators wave Hamas flags and shout slogans during a protest following the killing of top Hamas official Saleh Arouri in Beirut, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2024. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

The senior Israeli official also discussed the effect that the killing of al-Arouri might have on hostage talks with Hamas. He argued that the fact that Qatar did not respond publicly to the strike on the Hamas leader last night is a positive sign for the continuation of talks on the release of more hostages from Gaza.

“If they don’t announce anything, that is ultimately something optimistic,” said the official.

Israel has remained mum on responsibility for the strike despite widespread speculation that it was behind the killing of the top Hamas official.

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