All the signs are in place that Israel is once again seriously considering a massive ethnic cleansing operation, conducted at lightning speed and with US assistance, writes Jonathan Cook, an English author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
As Israeli forces began making limited ground incursions into northern Gaza over the weekend, reports proliferated that Israel was readying plans to expel much or all of the enclave’s population into the neighbouring Egyptian territory of Sinai.
In part, those fears were fuelled by a report last week, published in the Israeli outlet Calcalist, of a leaked policy draft from the intelligence ministry outlining just such an ethnic cleansing plan for Gaza.
Further concerns were raised by a report in the Financial Times on Monday that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had lobbied the European Union on the idea of driving the strip’s Palestinians into Sinai under cover of war.
Some EU members, including the Czech Republic and Austria, were said to have been receptive and floated the idea at a meeting of member states last week. An unnamed European diplomat told the FT: “Now is the time to put increased pressure on the Egyptians to agree.”
According to the leaked Israeli intelligence ministry document, after their expulsion, Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians would initially be housed in tent cities, before permanent communities could be built in the peninsula’s north.
A military “sterile zone”, several kilometres wide, would prevent any return to Gaza. Longer term, Israel would encourage other states – especially Canada, European countries such as Greece and Spain, and North African countries – to absorb the Palestinian population in Sinai.
For Palestinians, on the other hand, it has traumatic echoes of Israel’s mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland at Israel’s creation in 1948 – what Palestinians call their Nakba, or Catastrophe.
The leaked document was quickly dismissed as speculative. But, in fact, Israel has had just such an ethnic cleansing plan for Gaza on the drawing board, approved by the United States, since at least 2007. That was shortly after Hamas won Palestinian elections and took control of the enclave.
After a series of failed, secret diplomatic efforts over the past 16 years to arm-twist Egypt into accepting this so-called “peace plan” – known officially as the Greater Gaza Plan – Israel may be tempted to exploit the current moment to implement a much crueller version of it by force.
That would certainly explain Israel’s current devastating bombing campaign in Gaza – which officials are positively comparing to the horrifying firebombing of civilians in the German city of Dresden in the Second World War – as well as Israel’s order to one million Palestinians to ethnically cleanse themselves from northern Gaza.
The concentration of Palestinians into southern Gaza – where they are also being bombed and deprived of power, food, water and communications, with hospitals and aid compounds unable to function – has created an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe.
The pressure is building day by day on Egypt’s military ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to open the Rafah crossing on humanitarian grounds and let Palestinians flood into Sinai.
Hamas’ attack on Israeli communities next to Gaza on 7 October may have provided precisely the pretext Israel needs to dust off its ethnic cleansing plan.
With Washington and Europe on board, and the western media still focused primarily on Israel’s trauma rather than Gaza’s, Netanyahu cannot wait too long before his window for action closes.
The Greater Gaza Plan first came to light in 2014, after leaks to Israeli and Egyptian media – apparently part of a pressure campaign on Sisi, then recently installed with US backing.
As MEE noted back in 2014, the Greater Gaza Plan envisioned transferring 1,600 sq km of Sinai – five times the size of Gaza – to the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, headed by Abbas.
“The territory in Sinai would become a demilitarised Palestinian state – dubbed ‘Greater Gaza’ – to which returning Palestinian refugees would be assigned… In return, Abbas would have to give up the right to a state in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
The idea of creating a Palestinian state outside historic Palestine – in either Jordan or Sinai – has a long pedigree in Zionist thinking. “Jordan is Palestine” has been a rallying cry on the Israeli right for decades. There have been parallel suggestions for Sinai.
Moshe Feiglin, the speaker of the Israeli Knesset and then a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, called for Gaza’s inhabitants to be expelled from their homes under cover of the operation and moved into Sinai, in what he termed a “solution for Gaza”.
All of that is the context for interpreting Israel’s unprecedented current rampage through Gaza, as well as the similarly unprecedented fallout from political and military crises in Israel caused by Hamas’ 7 October attack.
The main sticking point for Egypt – apart from being seen to collude with Israel in erasing the Palestinian national cause – was concern that Hamas would gain a base inside Egypt, and strengthen Egypt’s home-grown Islamist movements.
There are plenty of indications that Israel’s determination to drive Palestinians into Egypt has intensified since the 7 October attack, and that the Hamas breakout has provided an opportunity to achieve by force what could not be achieved through diplomacy.
A week into its military operations, a spokesman for the Israeli military, Amir Avivi, told the BBC that Israel could not ensure the safety of civilians in Gaza. He added: “They need to move south, out to the Sinai Peninsula.”
The next day, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, Danny Ayalon, a Netanyahu confidant, amplified the point: “There is almost endless space in the Sinai Desert… This is not the first time it has been done… We and the international community will prepare the infrastructure for tent cities.”
He concluded: “Egypt will have to play ball.”
These officials have presented this as a temporary move during Israel’s bombing campaign and ground invasion. But all the signs are that Israel has far larger ambitions.
Benny Gantz, a former general who now sits in a unity government with Netanyahu, has said Israel has a plan to “change the security and strategic reality in the region”.
Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser, has said the goal is to “create conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable”. As a result, “Gaza will become a place where no human being can exist.”
The US, which has long backed the Greater Gaza Plan, has its own forms of leverage – including financial pressure – to encourage Sisi to comply.
Egypt is mired in an unprecedented debt crisis of more than $160bn, plus spiralling inflation, as Sisi heads into a presidential election.
Egyptian officials reportedly believe Washington will try to use a debt write-off as an incentive to accept refugees from a renewed Israeli ethnic cleansing operation.
All the signs are in place that Israel is once again seriously considering a massive ethnic cleansing operation, conducted at lightning speed and with US assistance, to override international objections.
“The question is, is anyone ready, or able, to stop them?” – Jonathan Cook puts a problem.