“I’ve been to all kinds of conflicts and all kinds of crises,” Arif Husain, chief economist for the U.N.’s World Food Program, told the New Yorker this week. “In my life, I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of severity, in terms of scale, and then in terms of speed.”
The human misery unfurling across Gaza finds little sympathy in the Israeli public discourse, where the priority remains the vanquishing of Hamas — perpetrators of the single bloodiest slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust — and the freeing of hostages held in Hamas’s Gazan redoubts. Indeed, a steady drumbeat of sound bites from Israeli lawmakers and other politicos has urged an even more devastating fate for the territory.
Members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition have called for the dropping of a nuclear bomb on densely-populated Gaza, the total annihilation of the territory as a mark of retribution, and the immiseration of its people to the point that they have no choice but to abandon their homeland.
This week alone, a parliamentarian from Netanyahu’s Likud party went on television and said it was clear to most Israelis that “all the Gazans need to be destroyed.” Then, Israel’s ambassador in Britain told local radio that there was no other solution for her country than to level “every school, every mosque, every second house” in Gaza to degrade Hamas’s military infrastructure.
This accumulating rhetoric forms part of the 84-page application filed by the government of South Africa at the International Court of Justice, accusing Israel of actions that amount to genocide or failure to prevent genocide. Though it condemns Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, the South African case argues “no armed attack on a State’s territory no matter how serious — even an attack involving atrocity crimes — can … provide any possible justification for, or defense to, breaches” of the Genocide Convention. Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, it explains, has already “laid waste to vast areas of Gaza, including entire neighborhoods, and has damaged or destroyed in excess of 355,000 Palestinian homes,” rendering swaths of the territory uninhabitable for a long period of time to come. Israeli authorities, claimed the South African complaint, have failed to suppress “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” from a host of Israeli politicians, journalists and public officials.
That includes far-right figures like finance minister Bezalel Smotrich and national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who do little to hide their vision of an ethnically-cleansed Gaza. “What needs to be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage emigration,” Smotrich said in an interview Sunday with Israeli Army Radio. “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not 2 million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after will be totally different.” Ben Gvir separately called for the de facto forced migration of hundreds of thousands out of Gaza.
U.S. and other Western officials condemned these statements as “inflammatory and irresponsible.” But such pushback is doing little to change the tone of the conflict. Netanyahu himself, according to my colleagues, tried to cajole Egypt and other Arab governments and states elsewhere into taking Gazan refugees — a non-starter for many in the Middle East, who fear further Palestinian dispossession of their lands.
Israeli calls for de facto ethnic cleansing and potential Israeli settlement of Gaza may not reflect the actual position of Israel’s wartime cabinet. “In private, Israeli officials say the proposals [to relocate Gazans] stem from the political imperatives of Netanyahu’s coalition and his dependence on far-right parties to maintain power,” my colleagues reported.
“The professionals in the military and the security establishment know this is not even in the realm of possibility,” a person directly familiar with conversations inside the Israeli government told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “They know there is no future without Gazans in Gaza and the [Palestinian Authority] as part of the government.”
But Netanyahu and his allies remain conspicuously vague about their imagined endgame for Gaza. That uncertainty, analysts contend, only deepens concerns about Israel’s intent among its Arab neighbors, including Gulf monarchies that were warming to the Jewish state.
“Nobody is going to take the steps that would precede new normalization agreements when Netanyahu is rebuffing Arab states demands on a two-state political process and also insisting that they should fund Gaza reconstruction with no questions asked or strings attached,” wrote Michael Koplow and David Halperin of the Israel Policy Forum.
“Iran and its proxies are not going to be deterred when visiting high-ranking U.S. officials repeatedly lay out their vision for a postwar Gaza and Israeli cabinet members fall over each other in their rush to the television studios to offer public rebuttals,” they added, arguing that it was vital for the Biden administration to push the Israelis to face up to these realities.
Meanwhile, a group of prominent Israelis, including former lawmakers, top scientists and intellectuals, wrote a joint letter Wednesday condemning Israel’s judicial authorities for not reining in the genocidal rhetoric widely on show. “For the first time that we can remember, the explicit calls to commit atrocious crimes, as stated, against millions of civilians have turned into a legitimate and regular part of Israeli discourse,” they wrote. “Today, calls of these types are an everyday matter in Israel.”