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African countries should not entertain taking forcibly displaced Palestinians

If Israel is indeed considering this option, African states cannot ignore the legal, humanitarian and political implications.

In early January, media reports claimed Israel was in talks with ‘Congo’ about ‘voluntary migration plans’ for Palestinians from Gaza. The original report in Zman Yisrael said ‘voluntary’ resettlement was slowly becoming official policy, and the Israeli coalition was meeting secretly with Congo and other nations on the issue. A security cabinet source said, ‘Congo will be willing to take in migrants, and we’re in talks with others.’

Israel-based i24 later reported talks with Rwanda and Chad. It cited an unnamed official as saying Israel would exchange financial and military aid for resettling Palestinians, but warning, ‘We must move forward with this solution while paying close attention to international reactions that could interpret it as a forced transfer and not a voluntary migration. This is why we work closely with legal advisors.’

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Chad have denied secret talks with Israel. The Republic of the Congo hasn’t issued a public statement.

Israel subsequently denied talking to other states about absorbing displaced Gazans. Several countries, including the Netherlands, Germany, France and Saudi Arabia, have condemned calls for forced migration. Even the United States (US) government – a committed ally of Israel – issued a rare statement rejecting ‘irresponsible statements’ from Israeli ministers, saying they didn’t reflect the policy of the Israeli government or prime minister.

The forcible transfer of civilians from an occupied territory is against international humanitarian law

The forcible transfer of civilians of an occupied territory, in whole or in part, is against international humanitarian law. As of 6 January, 1.88 million Palestinians (85% of the population) were displaced across the Gaza Strip due to Israel’s ongoing military aggression that has killed 22 835 Palestinians since 7 October 2023.

Plans to push large numbers of Palestinians into distant countries that satisfy the test of ‘voluntariness’ in the context of military occupation and months of bombardment are unrealistic and unlikely. But it’s concerning that Israel is pursuing these conversations to gauge public and political responses. Many officials across multiple parties have made remarks that serve a dangerous normalising function. 

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir rejected the US’ condemnation, saying: ‘The United States is our best friend, but first of all we will do what is best for the State of Israel: the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the [Gaza] envelope to return home and live in security and will protect the IDF soldiers.’ 

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich repeated calls to resettle Gazans, claiming that ‘more than 70% of the Israeli public today supports encouraging emigration as a humanitarian solution.’

Far from a fringe view, members of the leading Likud party have made similar calls. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told a Likud meeting that he was working to facilitate Gazans’ voluntary migration to other countries but is struggling to find states willing to absorb them. Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter claimed, ‘We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,’ referring to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians between 1947 and 1949 that displaced approximately 750 000 people.

Mass displacement has been a central theme of Israeli-Palestinian history

Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel told reporters, ‘Voluntary migration is the best and most realistic programme for the day after the fighting ends.’ In November 2023, Danny Danon (Likud) and Ram Ben-Barak (Yesh Atid) jointly published a Wall Street Journal article calling for the West to welcome Gaza refugees. 

Sustained efforts to drive Gazans south towards the Egyptian border and leaked papers indicate that Israel is again trying to push Gazans into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Reports claim that Israel has offered to write off Egyptian debt and that Netanyahu has lobbied European leaders to help him pressure President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to absorb refugees. 

Egypt and other Arab countries have withstood the pressure to open their borders, partly out of fears that Israel could use the war to force demographic changes and eliminate prospects of Palestinian statehood. Despite wanting to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, el-Sisi said the war wasn’t just aimed at fighting Hamas, but was ‘also an attempt to push the civilian inhabitants to … migrate to Egypt’ with the intent to ‘eliminate the Palestinian cause … the most important cause of our region.’ 

Mass displacement has been a central theme of Israeli-Palestinian history. Israel has refused to allow Palestinians who fled previous wars to return. Almost six million refugees and their descendants remain in other countries – many stateless. 

Egyptians, like most Africans, have broad solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Any decision viewed as entrenching Israeli occupation would face public and political backlash. Egypt also has concerns about terrorists moving with Gazan civilians, and the country becoming a base for attacks on Israel.

Israel has secretly implemented a deportation plan for African migrants before. Between 2014 and 2017, Israel brokered a partnership with Rwanda and Uganda to accept asylum seekers who agreed to ‘voluntary’ transfer. Rwanda and Uganda have denied this. But reports show that thousands of Africans were promised travel documents, cash and visas if they agreed to leave Israel for ‘third countries.’ The plan was eventually abandoned after the asylum seekers were denied documentation, blocked from claiming asylum and coerced into leaving Israel.

Many Israeli officials across multiple parties have made remarks that serve a dangerous normalising function

Given the humanitarian and political implications, discussions between states about mass displacement would likely remain clandestine and outside public scrutiny.

Democratic countries and regional blocs such as Italy or the European Union, have previously secured migration cooperation under questionable circumstances. These include co-opting Libyan militia and partnering with Tunisian President Kais Saied in exchange for ‘managing’ boat departures to Europe. Both deals included giving cash to controversial leaders and have undermined democracy and the rule of law.

Concerns would also arise if deals included military aid. Israel is the world’s 10th largest arms exporter. It hasn’t ratified the Arms Trade Treaty and is accused of providing arms and surveillance to regimes with poor human rights records, including during the Rwandan genocide, the South Sudanese civil war and apartheid South Africa. 

The current appetite for weapons or cash injections could be high in some quarters. In 2022, Rwanda agreed to a widely criticised deal to accept asylum seekers from the United Kingdom (UK), which was subsequently blocked by the UK Supreme Court. 

Hopefully the trial balloon of forcibly displacing Palestinians into Africa has returned an overwhelming response and been quashed. We must remain vigilant about anything that suggests otherwise.

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