The last three months were an odyssey, a quest for safety that does not exist in Gaza. Muhammed Ali and his family have had to search for new accommodation several times—his home in Gaza City was destroyed by Israeli strikes, he says. “We initially sought shelter in Al-Quds Hospital, which was close to our former home. When we were told [by the army] that we had to evacuate there, we went to Nuseirat refugee camp [in the centre of the Gaza Strip]. Currently, we are in Rafah,” says Ali in a text message on WhatsApp, referring to the southernmost city near the Egyptian border.
Three months after Israel declared war on Hamas on October 8, the 35-year-old civil engineer is not only worried about his and his family’s daily survival but also about what the future in Gaza will look like. Some prominent Israeli politicians and Ministers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultranationalist government have questioned whether Gaza’s population should be allowed to return home at all. “We hope that permanent forced displacement will not occur, that the war will end, and that people will return to their homes. Enough of what has happened; everything must come to an end,” Ali says.
Neither Israel’s war cabinet nor the expanded security cabinet have adopted official policies on post-war Gaza yet. The priority in the political and public discourse remains the “elimination” of the militant-Islamist Hamas, responsible for the terrorist attacks of October 7 in which more than 1,200 people died, and the liberation of the more than 130 hostages still being held in the Gaza Strip.
Gaza discourse becomes heated
Far-right Israeli politicians such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir make no secret of the fact that they envisage Gaza’s future without most of its Palestinian inhabitants. They want the territory populated with new Israeli settlers. “What needs to be done in Gaza is to encourage emigration,” Smotrich said in a recent interview with Israeli Army Radio. “If there are 1,00,000 or 2,00,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million Arabs, the whole discussion for the day after will look completely different.” In separate statements, Ben Gvir also called for the “voluntary” migration of hundreds of thousands of people from the Gaza Strip. Other members of the cabinet have expressed similar ideas.
Israeli media reported on negotiations with third countries that would be willing to take in Palestinians, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Chad. All three countries have rejected these reports as untrue. DRC’s government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya said in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, that there has “never been any form of negotiation, discussion, or initiative between Kinshasa and Israel about the reception of Palestinian migrants on Congolese soil”.
Growing incitement against Palestinians
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has rejected the settlement plans of his right-wing coalition partners. There will be “no civilian [Israeli] presence in Gaza,” according to a plan that details some aspects of post-war Gaza, which he presented on January 4. According to the plan, which would still have to become official policy, Gaza would be governed by unspecified Palestinian entities, while Israel would retain security control. Israel withdrew its settlements in the Gaza Strip in 2005 but has controlled the land and sea borders, as well as the airspace, ever since the militant Islamist group Hamas seized power from the Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Ahead of the first hearing at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in a case against Israel, Netanyahu said that Israel “has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population”. The ultra-nationalist coalition partners are considered important for maintaining Netanyahu’s coalition. However, their influence on strategic decisions is questionable, according to some Israeli analysts.
“Israel is dependent on the US probably more than ever. This is true for the diplomatic support in the UN Security Council as well as for Israel’s national security,” said Udi Sommer, professor of political science at Tel Aviv University and research fellow at John Jay College of the City University of New York. “Therefore, if you want to get a reasonably good projection for what is a realistic post-war scenario, I would listen to what the US Secretary of State has to say, much more than to reckless statements made by extremist elements in Netanyahu’s government,” he said.
Others, however, have questioned the public discourse in Israel, which leaves little room for the fate of Gaza’s population. Israeli politicians and scholars have expressed criticism of the growing sentiment of incitement against Palestinians in Gaza by some public figures, journalists, and parliamentarians. And now there is the ICJ case launched by South Africa, which is accusing Israel of genocide in its current campaign in Gaza. The controversial statements by Israeli officials and politicians were included in the case South Africa filed to the ICJ. The US and other countries, including Germany, have criticised the far-right’s statements as “irresponsible and inflammatory”.
Arab states reject forced immigration of Palestinians
During his latest visit to the region on January 9, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the importance of a UN agreement to assess the conditions under which it would be possible for Palestinians to move back to Gaza. “As soon as conditions allow, we want to see people be able to move back to their homes,” he said. The forced immigration of Palestinians is also unacceptable to Arab states. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sissi has made it particularly clear—as he did in previous Gaza wars—that the country has no plans to settle Palestinians in the neighbouring Egyptian Sinai region.
According to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), an estimated 1.9 million people—around 85 per cent of the population—are now considered displaced. Hundreds of thousands are currently seeking refuge in Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip on the border with Egypt. The immense destruction in Gaza—more than 60 per cent of Gaza’s housing units are reportedly destroyed or damaged—reinforces the concern that it is questionable how a return home will even be possible, says Mustafa Ibrahim, a human rights activist and political analyst, on the phone from Rafah.
“Smotrich’s recent statement, denounced by Europe and America, aligns with the displacement concept,” Ibrahim told DW. “With a million and a half Palestinians crowded into Rafah, this epitomises the idea of displacement, and it is a constant concern for Palestinians.”
Leave Gaza temporarily—but not forever
Displacement is not new for Palestinians, says Ibrahim. Many Palestinians still bear the trauma of 1948, known as Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), in the back of their minds. In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had to flee their homes or were expelled during the Arab-Israeli war. They have not been able to return to this day. At the time, many fled to Gaza. Around 70 per cent of the population there are considered refugees and their descendants, according to UNRWA.
Like most residents of Gaza, this is not the first time Amer Abdel Muti has had to live through a major conflict. A resident of Jabalia north-east of Gaza City, he has also had to flee several times, first to Khan Younis and recently to Rafah. “If Western countries would open their doors for us during the war and allow us to leave for a short time, allowing us to return after a cease-fire, then I would leave, because my life is precious to me,” says the 30-year-old via WhatsApp. “But if I had to leave forever, then I wouldn’t leave. Then I would stay in my home country.”