'Israel fighting terrorists, not the Palestinian population'

Netanyahu: Let me be clear — Israel has no intention of displacing Gaza’s population

PM says IDF will also not permanently occupy the Strip; Likud MK: Netanyahu told me he’d like Gaza voluntary migration but is under US pressure

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a message on Israel's war with Hamas, January 10, 2024. (Video screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a message on Israel's war with Hamas, January 10, 2024. (Video screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday night Israel “has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population,” rebuffing hard-right ministers’ calls to rebuild Israeli settlements in the territory and encourage Palestinian emigration.

The premier’s English-language video posted to social media came on the eve of the International Court of Justice in The Hague hearing a highly charged case accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza.

“I want to make a few points absolutely clear,” Netanyahu said. “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population. Israel is fighting Hamas terrorists, not the Palestinian population, and we are doing so in full compliance with international law.”

“Our goal is to rid Gaza of Hamas terrorists and free our hostages. Once this is achieved, Gaza can be demilitarized and deradicalized, thereby creating a possibility for a better future for Israel and Palestinians alike.”

At the same time, a senior Likud member insisted Wednesday that Netanyahu had previously expressed support for the idea of the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza, but took it off the table in the face of pushback from the US.

“The prime minister told me two weeks ago in this room that it’s a good idea,” MK Danny Danon told The Times of Israel, seemingly confirming an earlier report that the prime minister had informed a Likud faction meeting that he was working to facilitate voluntary migration.

“Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it,” Netanyahu was reported as saying in response to a question from Danon during a weekly party gathering in the Knesset.

“We had a faction meeting a few weeks ago when I asked him about voluntary relocation and he said it’s a good idea and not easy to find countries that would accept Gazans,” Danon confirmed, adding that he understood that Netanyahu’s change of heart was due to American pressure.

“In the last few days, because of the pressure coming from a few countries, he stated that it’s not the position of the government and Israel is not promoting it. [US Secretary of State Antony] Blinken said he got assurances,” the lawmaker said.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on Danon’s statements.

During a press conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Blinken told reporters that Palestinian civilians “must not be pressed to leave Gaza,” adding that Netanyahu “reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel’s government.”

Israeli officials have denied reports that Israel is engaged in negotiations with foreign nations to accept thousands of immigrants from Gaza — and government spokesman Eylon Levy has called allegations that Israel is seeking to remove residents from the strip “outrageous and false.”

Danon — who has made “the enabling of voluntary immigration for Gazans who wish to relocate” a key part of his proposed postwar plan — said that a number of foreign envoys had expressed “great concern about the idea of voluntary emigration” on Wednesday during a diplomatic roundtable on postwar Gaza he co-sponsored with Yesh Atid lawmaker Ram Ben-Barak.

Danon said the diplomats had argued that “during wartime when we destroyed so many homes, it is not voluntary” and “I told them we can wait but I think it’s not humanitarian to tell the people of Gaza you will never be allowed to relocate.” He was reiterating an argument he recently made in a joint Wall Street Journal op-ed with Ben-Barak.

Addressing the diplomats on Wednesday, Ben-Barak emphasized that “Gaza rightfully belongs to its residents,” a statement in line with his previous declaration that “residents of Gaza should be allowed… to choose whether they remain in Gaza.”

The former Mossad deputy director has sought to differentiate himself and Danon from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. Both have repeatedly called for “voluntary emigration,” drawing criticism from cabinet ministers and foreign governments alike.

In a tweet following criticism in the wake of the publication of his op-ed, Ben-Barak said that he was misunderstood, explaining that Palestinians “should be allowed, with an emphasis on allowed, to choose whether they remain in Gaza and hope that Gaza will be a better place to live under a regime that will take care of the residents’ well-being and quality of life.”

“This is exactly the opposite of the transfer approach,” he asserted.

Ben Gvir is a disciple of the late far-right Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated legislation to expel all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank. He has called for encouraging “the emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza.”

A resettlement policy is necessary, Smotrich recently argued, 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.”

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

While there is “great support for [migration] amongst Likud MKs, we also understand the diplomatic ramifications and therefore we’re letting the PM take the lead on this,” explained another Likud lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal party dynamics.

“We live in a global world and even though this is something we think is the right solution we don’t live alone in this world,” the lawmaker said, adding that Danon and Ben-Barak’s proposal was “different from what Smotrich and Ben Gvir mean. I don’t think there is a push in Likud for things that Smotrich is talking about — paying people to leave.”

The Netanyahu government has been reluctant to release a postwar plan for Gaza and a government meeting on the issue last week erupted into a loud and angry dustup between ministers and military brass.

Speaking at Wednesday’s diplomatic gathering at the Knesset, French Ambassador Frédéric Journès expressed concern regarding the future of Gaza, citing the American occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Social engineering is not an easy thing,” he said.

In order to achieve such a goal, said Romanian ambassador Radu Ioanid, a former official at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a program of “de-Hamasification” similar to the denazification carried out by the allies in Germany after the Second World War may be necessary.

Shalom Yerushalmi contributed to this report.

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