ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 142

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ExclusiveMinister: 'The world should support humanitarian emigration'

Israel in talks with Congo and other countries on Gaza ‘voluntary migration’ plan

Senior official says Jerusalem working on postwar resettlement of Palestinians from Strip; some ministers tout Saudi Arabia as destination for Gazans seeking construction work

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Illustrative -- Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
Illustrative -- Palestinians cross to the Egyptian side of the border crossing with the Gaza Strip in Rafah, Nov. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)

The “voluntary” resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza is slowly becoming a key official policy of the government, with a senior official saying that Israel has held talks with several countries for their potential absorption.

Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, has learned 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.

Congo has high levels of inequality, and 52.5 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the World Food Programme.

Meanwhile, 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dec. 31, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Last Monday, Netanyahu told a Likud faction meeting that he is 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.

The prime minister was responding to Likud MK Danny Danon, who claimed that “the world is already discussing the possibilities of voluntary immigration,” though the idea has been roundly rejected by the international community.

The far-right Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties, headed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, respectively, have backed the plans for migration.

On Tuesday, the US State Department called out Smotrich and Ben Gvir for advocating the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza, slamming their rhetoric as “inflammatory and irresponsible.” Smotrich dismissed the comments on Wednesday, claiming that over 70 percent of Israelis support the idea of “encouraging voluntary immigration” because “two million people [in Gaza] wake up every morning with the desire to destroy the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s office has issued statements in the past publicly insisting that Smotrich and Ben Gvir do not represent government policy on the matter, despite his own comments last week in support of a population transfer.

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers and lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud have also been advocating the policy.

On Tuesday, Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel told Zman that “voluntary migration is the best and most realistic program for the day after the fighting ends.”

On Tuesday, during a conference held in the Knesset to examine possibilities for postwar Gaza, Gamliel said: “At the end of the war, Hamas rule will collapse. There are no municipal authorities; the civilian population will be entirely dependent on humanitarian aid. There will be no work, and 60% of Gaza’s agricultural land will become security buffer zones.”

In internal discussions, Gamliel presented a map of the Gaza Strip after the fighting that shows remaining residents boxed in. Israel would cut ties with Gaza and expand its security buffer zones; control the Philadelphi Corridor, which runs along the 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) Gaza-Egypt border (a plan attacked by an Egyptian lawmaker on Saturday after it was announced by Netanyahu); and establish a permanent naval blockade.

Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel attends the Christian Feast of Tabernacles event organized by the Jerusalem Christian Embassy, held at the Arena stadium in Jerusalem on October 3, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/FLASH90)

Gamliel said that Gaza must not be handed over to the Palestinian Authority, and Gazans must not be left in the Strip to be educated to hate, as that would mean that further attacks on Israel are only a matter of time. While rejecting the PA’s return, the government has offered few details on what political entity it wants to rule Gaza.

“The Gaza problem is not just our problem,” Gamliel said. “The world should support humanitarian emigration, because that’s the only solution I know.”

Likud’s Danon is another of the leading supporters of the plan to encourage Gazans to leave the Strip.

On Tuesday, he presented his five-step plan at a conference in the Knesset (demobilization, establishing a security buffer zone, Israeli presence at the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, voluntary emigration, and eradicating the terrorist atmosphere).

Likud MK Danny Danon in Jerusalem, September 13, 2023 (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)

In November, he published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal along with Yesh Atid MK Ram Ben Barak in which the two detailed the plan for Palestinian migration for the first time, calling for “countries around the world to accept limited numbers of Gazan families who have expressed a desire to relocate.” Ben Barak later seemed to walk back the piece, claiming he had “not been completely understood.”

The security cabinet was supposed to meet Tuesday evening to discuss what will happen in Gaza at the end of the war.

Ministers intended to present their plans and in talks between some of them, the idea was also raised to ask Saudi Arabia to take in hundreds of thousands of Palestinians for work. The Gulf kingdom is in the midst of a tremendous construction boom and employs close to half a million workers, who currently come mainly from India, Bangladesh and other countries.

Foreign laborers work at a construction site amid scorching heat in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 16, 2022 (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

However, the security cabinet discussion was postponed until Wednesday due to the need for security consultations after Hamas’s deputy political leader, Saleh al-Arouri — wanted for years by Israel and seen as the group’s prime orchestrator of West Bank terrorism — was killed in an alleged Israeli strike in the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh.

The idea of resettling Gazans was expected to take center stage during Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting.

The discussion comes amid growing frustration in Washington with Netanyahu’s government, which the Biden administration has continued to support diplomatically and militarily in the war against Hamas but has increasingly sparred with regarding planning for Gaza once the fighting ends.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report, which was first published in Hebrew by Times of Israel sister site Zman Yisrael.

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