Israeli minister repeats call for Palestinians to leave Gaza

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's comments underscore fears in the Arab world that Israel wants to drive Palestinians out of their land

By Reuters

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Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. — Reuters file
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich. — Reuters file

Published: Sun 31 Dec 2023, 10:01 PM

One of the senior figures in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition called on Sunday for Palestinian residents of Gaza to leave the besieged enclave, making way for Israelis who could "make the desert bloom".

The comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has been excluded from the war cabinet and discussions of day-after arrangements in Gaza, appear to underscore fears in much of the Arab world that Israel wants to drive Palestinians out of land where they want to build a future state, repeating the mass dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948.

"What needs to be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage emigration," Smotrich told Army Radio. "If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not 2 million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after will be totally different."

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He said if the 2.3 million population were no longer there "growing up on the aspiration to destroy the state of Israel", Gaza would be seen differently in Israel.

"Most of Israeli society will say 'why not, it's a nice place, let's make the desert bloom, it doesn't come at anyone's expense'."

Smotrich, whose hard-right Religious Zionism party draws support from Israel's settler community, has made similar comments in the past, setting himself at odds with Israel's most important ally, the United States.

But his views do not reflect the official government position that Gazans will be able to return to their homes after the war against Hamas which controls Gaza, now nearing the start of its fourth month.

Smotrich's party, which helped Netanyahu secure the majority he needed to become prime minister for the sixth time almost exactly a year ago, has seen its approval ratings slump since the start of the conflict.

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Opinion polls also indicate that most Israelis do not support the return of Israeli settlements to Gaza, after they were moved out in 2005 when the army withdrew.

Palestinians and leaders of Arab countries have accused Israel of seeking a new "Nakba" (catastrophe), the name given to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the wake of the 1948 war that accompanied the founding of the state of Israel.

Most ended up in neighbouring Arab states, and Arab leaders have said any latter-day move to displace Palestinians would be unacceptable.

Israel withdrew its military and settlers from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, and Netanyahu has said it does not intend to maintain a permanent presence again, but that Israel would maintain security control for an indefinite period.

However there has been little clarity about Israel's longer-term intentions, and countries including the United States have said that Gaza should be governed by Palestinians.


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