Israel has long wanted Palestinians out of Gaza – my father saw it firsthand | Raja Shehadeh

Fifty-six years ago, after Israel’s victory in the six-day war in 1967, an intensive debate took place in the country regarding the future of the newly occupied West Bank and Gaza. The options ranged from outright annexation of the land by Israel, returning the West Bank to Jordan or the establishment of a Palestinian state.

My father, Aziz Shehadeh, was a proponent of the last. As a lawyer and activist for refugee rights, he proposed a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel. Washington urged Israel then to translate its undefined position for a settlement into concrete terms.

In the midst of Israel’s brutal attack on Gaza, the US is again urging Israel to come up with a plan for the day after. However, as in 1967, Israel’s driving ambitions now focus on retaining as much of the land as possible and getting rid of as many Palestinians as possible.

In 1967, Israeli policymakers were adamant about keeping the occupied Gaza Strip. As early as 8 June 1967, Golda Meir, the then secretary general of ruling party Mapai, stated in a meeting of the party’s political committee that she was for “getting rid of its Arabs”. The Israeli cabinet resolution 563, of 19 June 1967, determined that “according to the international border, the Gaza Strip is located within the territory of the state of Israel”. Yet because of the large Palestinian population in Gaza, annexation of the territory, as had happened in East Jerusalem, was not a viable option.

Mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza was also not feasible while the world was watching. So other strategies were employed. The first of these was to make life unbearable, by ruling with an iron fist and keeping the standard of living very low. The second was by encouraging emigration. Personally supervised by the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, this strategy relied on financial incentives. By mid-1968, tens of thousands had left the Strip, mostly for Jordan. But Jordan decided to stop admitting them, so Israel increased its attempts to boost emigration of Palestinians to non-Arab countries such as Brazil and other South American states, as well as Canada and Australia, but with little success. In the end, none of these strategies brought about significant results, leading Eshkol to lament, “I still don’t know how to get rid of them.”

Palestinian refugees in east Jordan in 1968. Photograph: G Nehmeh/AP

After the passage of more than five decades, and even with the imposition of a 16-year siege of the Strip, it is clear that none of these strategies have worked and most of the Palestinian population of Gaza, composed mainly of refugees from 1948 when Israel was established, remained there and increased from 400,000 to 2.2 million. Now, with the war on Gaza, Israel seems to be seizing the opportunity to carry out what has not been possible in all the previous years.

In the wake of the 7 October killings, Israel launched a massive strike against Hamas, ostensibly to destroy its military strength, backed by sympathetic public support. But as my colleague, the human rights activist Raji Sourani, who lives in Gaza City, told me over the phone a few days ago, the war he is experiencing is not against Hamas; instead, bombs are striking locations that are heavily populated by civilians.

Events point to Israel’s strategy of emptying the north of Gaza of its Palestinian population, with both the massive bombardment that has damaged at least 222,000 residential units, and the refusal to accept a ceasefire so essential life-saving provisions cannot enter. All this shows the massive pressure on the Palestinian population to move south, thus ethnically cleansing the north. There is little prospect that this strategy is intended to keep the civilians out of harm’s way, as Israel has announced, or that it will be reversed after hostilities end. When the fighting stops there would be few buildings in the north still standing for people to move back into to restore their homes and livelihoods.

Today, almost six decades after my father’s failed effort to convince the Israeli government to make peace with the Palestinians based on sharing the land, I feel the dreadful consequences of this failure. The killing of 11,000 people by Israeli forces, the attacks taking place in the West Bank by both the Israeli army and Jewish settlers that have led to the deaths of 200 Palestinians, and the failure of the world to deter Israel’s excesses has ushered profound fear into my own life.

The cries of the man with dual Irish-Palestinian nationality who lived in Gaza’s Beach camp on the shore of the Mediterranean still ring in my ears. He said to an Al Jazeera reporter that his camp was being bombed from all sides by Israel, and he wondered whether he would survive. He was in darkness with only a torch lighting his face. He asked how much more suffering we must endure before the world stops this, then most poignantly asked the viewers: “Are you enjoying this?” I wonder whether he survived the Israeli bombings. Or another man who, after informing the reporter, “They’re bombing the camp continuously,” said, “We’re leaving our home. We’re moving to al-Shifa hospital.” He ended with the plea: “Do something. Do something.” I thought of him as the hospital was surrounded by the Israeli army.

Everything that gave me hope that when violence reaches an unconscionable point and excessive violations of human rights are committed, Israel will be made to stop, is shattered now. I used to have faith that we would be protected by international humanitarian law, or by an outcry from the Israeli public against the excesses of their government – yet at this point I see no hope in either. Nor does it seem that there is hope that Israel will wake up from the delusion that war and violence against the Palestinians and its unassailable military strength will give it peace and security. This leaves us Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories vulnerable and with serious danger for our lives and our future presence in this land.

And yet, despite it all, I find myself echoing Raji Sourani, a friend with whom I have gone through a lot over the past decades. Last week he wrote in Jacobin magazine: “We deserve justice and we deserve freedom. We believe we are on the right side of history and that we are the stones of the valley. Despite the immensity of the challenges we face, people here do not give up.”

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