ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Likud minister slams Smotrich, Ben Gvir’s ‘unrealistic’ call for Gazan emigration

‘It’s clear that the international community won’t accept it,’ argues Miki Zohar in response to calls for ‘voluntary’ resettlement of Palestinians; Shasha-Biton also condemns plan

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Palestinians fleeing Gaza City towards the southern areas walk on a road in the Strip on November 7, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Palestinians fleeing Gaza City towards the southern areas walk on a road in the Strip on November 7, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Two members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, including one from his own party, came out swinging Thursday against the support voiced by two of their fellow ministers for the resettlement of Gazans abroad, describing such a policy as unrealistic and detrimental to Israel’s international standing.

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar and minister without portfolio Yifat Shasha-Biton both voiced criticism of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir’s calls for “voluntary emigration” in separate interviews with the Ynet news site on Thursday morning — after international actors including the United States, the European Union, France and Germany panned the “expulsion” of Palestinians as a violation of international law.

Doubling down on his support for encouraging “voluntary emigration” of the Strip’s population to other countries as part of his postwar vision, Finance Minister Smotrich on Wednesday claimed that “more than 70 percent of the Israeli public today supports” such “a humanitarian solution,” but did not provide a source for this statistic.

A resettlement policy is necessary, he said, because “a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where four minutes away from our communities there is a hotbed of hatred and terrorism, where two million people wake up every morning with aspiration for the destruction of the State of Israel and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews wherever they are.”

Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, was unconvinced.

“It’s not realistic, and it’s clear that the international community will not accept it… with things like this, even if you have a belief or a goal like this, it can be discussed and debated behind closed doors,” he told Ynet.

“It’s clear that there is nobody in Israel who wouldn’t be happy if Gazans decided to emigrate voluntarily if they were happy to leave,” but this is not remotely realistic and a public discussion of the issue is unhelpful, he declared, adding that “we see the repercussions, we see what happened with the Americans.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar arrives at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on December 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The US State Department on Tuesday called out Smotrich and Ben Gvir’s rhetoric as “inflammatory and irresponsible,” amid growing frustration in Washington with Netanyahu’s hard-right government.

For months, Netanyahu has bucked US requests to begin planning for who will govern the Gaza Strip after the war, ostensibly recognizing that his far-right coalition partners would reject proposals that do not include Israel’s reoccupation and resettlement of Gaza — which the security establishment and Washington oppose. A cabinet meeting on the matter was planned for Thursday.

Ben Gvir hit back at Washington shortly after it aired its criticism Tuesday, tweeting that “the emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the [Gaza] envelope to return home and live in security and will protect the IDF soldiers.”

“I really admire the United States of America but with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag,” he averred.

Asked if she believed that the growing discourse on transferring Gaza’s Palestinian population was detrimental to Israel’s international standing, Shasha-Biton — who entered the coalition as part of Gantz’s National Unity party following Hamas’s October 7 onslaught in southern Israel — told Ynet that Smotrich and Ben Gvir were “causing damage, period, on any level at which it can be considered.”

“I think that everyone who sits around the government table and around the cabinet table should remember that we have a heavy responsibility to the citizens of the State of Israel. If there is nothing wise to say or something useful — then it is better to simply not say it,” she said.

“I think that Smotrich and Ben Gvir do not understand the magnitude of the responsibility that rests on their shoulders.”

Then Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton attends a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 9, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

While he has issued statements insisting that Smotrich and Ben Gvir do not represent government policy, Netanyahu himself has given the go-ahead for government members to support the plan to encourage Palestinians to leave the enclave.

Last Monday, he 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.

The prime minister was responding to Likud MK Danny Danon, who claimed that “the world is already discussing the possibilities of voluntary immigration.”

The “voluntary” resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza is slowly becoming a key official policy of the government, Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew sister site, reported on Wednesday, citing a senior official as saying that Israel has held talks with several countries for their potential absorption.

Netanyahu’s coalition is reportedly conducting secret contacts for accepting thousands of immigrants from Gaza with Congo, in addition to other nations.

However, a senior Israeli official disputed this report yesterday, declaring that the idea that Gazans would voluntarily leave the coastal enclave is “a baseless illusion” and asserting that Jerusalem is “not conducting any talks with any country on this issue.”

“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,” he said. “No one will absorb 2 million people, or 1 million, or 100,000, or 5,000.”

Jacob Magid, Shalom Yerushalmi and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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