Attack on Gaza: Israeli rhetoric fuels fears of ethnic cleansing as IDF assault continues to push south

Over the past eight weeks, with only a brief pause, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have carried out a relentless attack on Gaza. Day by day the death toll has grown. According to the latest figures from Gaza’s health ministry nearly 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them civilians.

Much of Gaza has been razed to the ground, especially the northern half, which was the focus of the initial attack. An estimated 1.9 million of the Strip’s population of 2.2 million are now displaced.

A recent World Health Organization post on X (formerly Twitter) conveys the devastation, stating that “nowhere is safe in #Gaza”, which appears to reflect the reality on the ground.

At the same time, there have been ominous statements from the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, some of his ministers and other senior Israeli politicians that appear to be tantamount to calling for ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip.

When he announced the launch of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza on October 27, Netanyahu made a sinister allusion to a Bible story: “‘You must remember what Amalek has done to you,’ says our Holy Bible.”

The Amalekites appear several times in the bible as enemies of the Israelites. In the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites are specifically commanded to: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt” and to “blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”.

Later in the first book of Samuel, God tells the Israelites: “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

The agriculture minister, Avi Dichter, referred to the assault on the Gaza Strip as “Gaza Nakba 2023”. This is a direct reference to what Palestinians call “the Nakba”, or “the catastrophe” in 1948, when armed Zionist settlers militias systematically destroyed Palestinian cities and towns and forced 750,000 people to flee their land.

“We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” Dichter said. “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.”

Some members of the Knesset (Israeli MPs) have called for the transfer of refugees from Gaza to Europe.

And a former interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, went further when she said: “After we turn Khan Younis into a soccer field … we need to take advantage of the destruction to tell the countries that each of them should take a quota, it can be 20,000 or 50,000. We need all two million to leave. That’s the solution for Gaza.”

These apparent calls for ethnic cleansing take on a haunting resonance when examining a disconcerting online video that was recently shared and later deleted by the website of state broadcaster Kan. Children, some possibly as young as ten, were apparently filmed singing a very disturbing song: “Within a year we will eliminate them all.”

Set against the backdrop of harrowing images depicting Gaza’s destruction, the children’s eerie chorus serves as a poignant reminder of the stark realities in which they are brought up.

A challenge to international law

Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, the ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians is not a sporadic or reactive development arising arbitrarily or in response to events on 7 October . According to the UN, 1.4 million of the Strip’s 2.3 million inhabitants were already registered as refugees, living in eight camps.

This is, of course, a fraction of the 5.9 million Palestinians who qualify as refugees under the UN’s definition: “Persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” Their descendants are also eligible to register as refugees.

Should an attempt be made to push Palestinians out of Gaza, these refugees would, in effect, be enduring a secondary ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile no heed is paid to UN resolution 194, passed in December 1948, which states that:

Refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.

Ethnic cleansing has not yet been registered as a distinct crime under international law. But the phrase gained currency in relation to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

It has been defined as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas”.

The prevention of ethnic cleansing in Gaza and the preservation of the Palestinian people’s right of return stand as pivotal components within the international legal framework. This is specifically designed to safeguard vulnerable populations such as the Palestinians in Gaza from enduring prolonged episodes of displacement and recurrent dispossession.

The prospect of a dual displacement will exacerbate the historical injustices endured by these refugees. Hence, Western powers, especially those funding Israel and failing to call for a ceasefire, hold an added moral duty and a profound responsibility to ensure this does not happen.

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