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Analysis | The Birth of a Second Palestinian Refugee Problem

06:00 Mar 26 2024 Gaza (غزة) & Israel (מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל‎ * دَوْلَة إِسْرَائِيل‎ )

Analysis | The Birth of a Second Palestinian Refugee Problem Analysis | The Birth of a Second Palestinian Refugee Problem Analysis | The Birth of a Second Palestinian Refugee Problem Analysis | The Birth of a Second Palestinian Refugee Problem
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Photos: Published by Haaretz
Displaced Palestinians fleeing from the area in the vicinity of Gaza City's Al-Shifa hospital walk along the coastal highway as they arrive at the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip in March. Credit: AFP

A girl holds a white flag as a displaced Palestinian family walks in Gaza City, on Monday.Credit: AFP

Palestinians walk past destroyed houses in the Jabalya refugee camp, in the northern Gaza Strip in February. Credit: Mahmoud Issa/Reuters

Youths watch from afar as people search the rubble of destroyed buildings in the Asra residential compound, northwest of Nuseirat in the Gaza Strip, on Monday.Credit: AFP
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Netanyahu must decide now whether to bring the Israeli hostages home and permit the return of the residents of northern Gaza – even at the price of a rift in his governing coalition – or to accede to the extreme right and declare the creation of a 'Palestinian refugee problem 2'

by Aluf Benn
Mar 26, 2024 6:00 am IST

A refugee problem is at the center of the current negotiations between Israel and Hamas. The issue is whether Israel will allow Palestinians to return to the northern Gaza Strip, from which they were expelled at the beginning of the war, or whether they will be permanently displaced from there, leaving the area under Israeli control.

The subject also relates to another current public controversy in Israel – whether to return northern Gaza to the Palestinians in exchange for the Israeli hostages being held in the Strip, as Israel's centrist parties are demanding, or whether the hostages should be given up on and the territory kept so that Jewish communities can be built there, as the right wants.

The main strategic move that Israel has taken in the war that erupted on October 7 was the expulsion of residents of the northern Strip and the destruction of homes and infrastructure there. It's not clear whether Hamas' leader in the Strip, Yahya Sinwar, anticipated that this was how Israel would react to the Hamas massacre in Israeli communities near the Gaza border or whether he was surprised by the intensity of the response and the ease with which Israel emptied the northern Strip of a considerable majority of its Palestinian residents – leaving those who remain risking hunger and death.

In addition to the expulsions and the destruction, Israel cleared an area alongside the border with Israel, where a security strip empty of people and buildings will be created. It has also built a road across the width of the Strip, that in the future could serve to divide a future Israeli northern Gaza and a southern Strip under Hamas control.

All of these measures have been low-profile; military statements and most Israeli media reports focus on tactical operations, such as the numbers of terrorists killed, tunnels blown up and suspects arrested.

Decision time is approaching, between making the expulsions from the northern Strip permanent and granting these refugees the right of return to their homes. The Palestinian Nakba in 1948 was created when, under the leadership of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel decided to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their cities and villages in the fighting during Israel's War of Independence.

The policy of leaving the refugees on the outside, which continues to this day, enabled Israel to be established along the armistice lines of 1949. Within a few years, hundreds of Arab communities were demolished, replaced by Jewish communities. Descendants of the Palestinian refugees who were displaced to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have been continuing from there to wage their battle against Israel.

A decision regarding the refugees from northern Gaza rests with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, as usual, is sitting on the fence and trying to buy time – while the Israel Defense Forces continues to build the security strip along the border fence and to expel some of the residents who have remained there. Israel is refusing to provide them with supplies along a quick route from the Erez checkpoint and is ignoring international pressure and warnings about famine.

Netanyahu is sending conflicting messages. Just prior to hearings at the International Court of Justice in The Hague regarding allegations of genocide against Israel, he declared that "Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population." At the beginning of the war, he also ruled out a resumption of the presence of Jewish communities in Gaza.

But since then, he has given quiet backing to initiatives from the extreme right that many in his Likud party have also been drawn into. Netanyahu's refusal to accept future Palestinian control in the Strip, his comments to American media outlets (to which he has said that we'll stay in Gaza for at least a decade) and his conduct in the negotiations with Hamas demonstrate that for the time being, he is avoiding a decision – or at least is leaving open the option of an occupation and settlements.

Netanyahu knows the history. For years, Ben-Gurion stood up to heavy international pressure that sought the return of the Palestinian refugees, or some of them. Until the world got used to the situation. That's also the position of Israel's right wing – that a few acres of Israeli communities in Gaza are better than a few annoying votes in the United Nations or in The Hague. And as they would have it, they won't have to wait many years for a political upheaval.

Netanyahu and his partners believe, not to say hope, that in November, Donald Trump will win the U.S. presidential election, and it's hard to believe the distress of the Palestinians would interest Trump – particularly after his rival, President Joe Biden, has expressed so much compassion for them. And if Israel can also help a Trump comeback by encouraging the pro-Palestinian community in the key state of Michigan not to vote for Democrats this time, Trump would be highly grateful to Netanyahu.

But the prime minister can't wait for Trump in order to make a decision. Even if he wins the election, Trump would only be inaugurated in another 10 months. Netanyahu must decide now, while the negotiations in Qatar are underway, whether to bring the Israeli hostages home and permit the return of the residents of northern Gaza – even at the price of a rift in his governing coalition – or to accede to the extreme right and declare the creation of a "Palestinian refugee problem 2" and to prepare for the construction of the luxury settlements of Samson Heights and Delila Oasis on the sites of Shujaiyeh and Jabalya and Rimal in the Gaza Strip.
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