Lama Mourad is an assistant professor at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Stephanie Schwartz is an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s department of international relations.
Amid the devastation facing civilians in Gaza, global leaders, humanitarian advocates, and even members of the Israeli Knesset have proposed helping Palestinians flee as a way to minimize harm to civilians. More than 1.5 million of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents have fled their homes, either because they were destroyed or because of Israel’s demand that civilians move south to avoid being in the line of fire. Now, many of those who fled south are being told to move yet again. The continuing threat to life clearly qualifies Gazans for international protection, and neighbouring states are obligated under international customary law to allow entry to those seeking asylum under these conditions.
But as scholars of forced migration, we worry that systematic displacement is passing as a humanitarian remedy. We must remember that at a minimum, forcibly displacing civilians is a human rights violation; at the extreme, systematic population transfer is a crime against humanity.
Firstly, there are currently no guarantees that if Palestinians flee, they will be allowed to return. More than half of Gaza’s population are refugees, descendants of Palestinians who fled their homes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War in what Palestinians call the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”). While refugees’ right of return is enshrined in international human rights law, it has historically been denied to Palestinians. In fact, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East does not have a mandate to secure the right of return for the nearly six million people it serves. Given this, many Gazans have hesitated to move south, and they may hesitate again if the border with Egypt is opened. For Palestinians, the sight of Gazan families fleeing echo their memories and images of the Nakba, invoking the fear that those displaced today may face the same fate.
Secondly, there is evidence suggesting Israel has an intent to expel. Israeli security cabinet member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter stated that “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba. From an operational point of view, there is no way to wage a war – as the IDF seeks to do in Gaza – with masses between the tanks and the soldiers.” (In response, a senior Israeli official has said that “Israel has no such policy.”) A recently leaked “concept paper” written by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry, dated Oct. 13, has also proposed the “evacuation” and permanent resettlement of Gazans in Egypt, along with plans to resettle Palestinians to other countries, including Canada. This report recommends this strategy as the most likely to “yield positive, long-term strategic outcomes for Israel, and is an executable option.” While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has downplayed the non-binding document, he has lobbied U.S. and European Union officials to press Egypt to take in Gazans in the last month, making forcible expulsion a real threat. It is also not the first time that proposals to displace Palestinians from Gaza have been brought forward; Israeli proposals to “resettle” Palestinians from the strip date back to 1967.
Finally, the scale and tactics of the current violence also matter. The relentless Israeli aerial bombardment makes it near-impossible for anyone, not just Hamas, to live in Gaza. Levelling more than 45 per cent of all housing, laying siege to a territory and denying civilians access to food, water and fuel coerces people to seek safety elsewhere. As Israel forces civilians to flee to even more limited areas, it’s unclear what will remain for them to return to.
So what does a humanitarian solution look like? When it comes to displacement, as has been the case in the rest of the conflict since October 7, we must hold multiple truths. The spectre of past permanent displacement, evidence of intent to displace in the present and the desire of many Palestinians to remain into the future must be heeded. At the same time, not one more civilian who is unable to escape the violence or access refuge should be killed. This is why the right to seek asylum exists, and why states are forbidden from sending refugees back to danger. It is only the looming threat of expulsion that allows Egypt to get away with keeping the border closed, in what is a clear violation of human rights. This same threat, paired with no guarantee of return, means that humanitarian action taken to help people flee could also facilitate crimes against humanity.
Given these truths, we must call for multiple solutions. Those who wish to flee must have access to asylum. The bombing must stop. And the right of return must be ensured.