A Palestinian exodus to Egypt?

Der Ökonom Shir Hever
German-Israeli economist Shir Hever (image: private)

Is the entire population of Gaza to be relocated to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt? This is what a strategy paper by the influential Israeli Misgav Institute envisages. In interview with Qantara.de, German-Israeli economist Shir Hever explains what the plan is all about

Interview by Elisa Rheinheimer

Dr. Hever, as regards the war in the Middle East, many observers are wondering what long-term goal it is that Israel is pursuing with the invasion of Gaza. The right-wing Israeli think tank Misgav Institute has published an explosive report that talks about the "ethnic cleansing" of Gaza. What does the leaked plan anticipate?

Shir Hever: The Misgav Institute has drawn up a comprehensive plan for resettling the entire population of the Gaza Strip on the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula. The declared aim is to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip of its Palestinian inhabitants. The strategy paper argues that the financial crisis in Egypt provides an opportunity to pressure the Egyptian government into accepting Palestinian refugees. It is assumed that Western governments would write off Egypt's debts in return for cooperation in implementing the plan.

Investment in the construction of refugee accommodation and infrastructure would be covered by international humanitarian aid. The amount of money this would inject into the Egyptian economy would likely be enough to persuade President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi to agree to the resettlement.

Ägypten baut den höchsten Wolkenkratzer Afrikas, den Iconic Tower, für drei Milliarden Dollar
Egypt is currently building the tallest skyscraper in Africa – the Iconic Tower – for three billion dollars, yet the country is up to its neck in debt (image: Sui Xiankai/Xinhua/picture-alliance)

How seriously should we take these plans?

For now, this is only being proposed by an institute. How likely is it that the Israeli government will adopt the plan?

Hever: Close links exist between the Israeli government and the Misgav Institute. The latter succeeded the Institute for Zionist Strategy, which was a state-funded organ of propaganda. The Misgav Institute is very new, having only been founded in April this year by Meir Ben Shabat, former head of the Israeli National Security Council. 

Misgav is active in Israeli media and is linked to Israel's most influential think tank, Kohelet, which was responsible for planning the judicial reform that has been rocking the state since January this year. The author of the report on ethnic cleansing is Amir Weitman, a senior member of Israel's ruling Likud party. 

It is safe to say that Misgav has access to the decision-makers and represents the wishes of the leading politicians. And: the plan to completely depopulate the Gaza Strip by displacing 2.3 million people has already been accepted by the Ministry of Intelligence! But not by other ministries; the Ministry of Finance, for example, is planning to build Jewish settlements in Gaza instead.

Does it seem possible to you as an economist that Egypt could agree to such a plan due to economic necessity? 

Hever: Egypt is indeed in a financial crisis and the Misgav Institute believes that the state will have no option but to accept any plan in return for its debts being written off. But the U.S. is not about to spend so much money so soon on financing Israel's expansion plans, and Israel itself cannot afford such an outlay. Furthermore, it is not just about money, but also about the legitimacy and stability of the Sisi regime. Public opinion in Egypt is very much aligned in opposition to any ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip.

At the G7 foreign ministers' meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated "that the Palestinians must not be forcibly expelled from the Gaza Strip (…) not now, not after the war." Do these unequivocal words from the USA reassure you?

Hever: The U.S. is currently being praised in Israel as a great ally, yet calls to respect for human life are being ignored. There is one thing the U.S. could do – it could stop supplying weapons to Israel. In 2014, President Obama stopped a shipment of Hellfire missiles to Israel during the invasion of Gaza, and Israel immediately announced a ceasefire. Blinken, on the other hand, is all talk and no action.

How are Israeli media reporting on the Misgav Institute's plan and its possible implementation?

Hever: The plans are well known and are being discussed alongside other ideas such as the killing of the entire population of Gaza or the conquest of large parts of the territory. In Israeli media, these plans are discussed at a practical level, with questions such as "Will the international community accept this?" There is absolutely no discussion at a moral or ethical level. I find this deeply shocking: I have never heard this kind of language being used before in Israel's major newspapers.

Pro-palästinensische Demonstration in Kairo
Pro-Palestinian demonstration in Cairo: "Public opinion in Egypt is very much aligned in opposition to any ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip," says economist Shir Hever (image: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Are we looking at a second Nakba?

Several high-ranking UN experts warn of the expulsion of an entire people. Are Europe's politicians turning a blind eye to such a scenario?

Hever: European politicians are complicit in Israeli crimes. They sell weapons to Israel with the knowledge that they will be used for war crimes against defenceless civilians, and they refuse to support a ceasefire. The UN, on the other hand, is much more critical than Europe – we are hearing stronger voices in the UN, voices of conscience and humanity, from South Africa, Colombia, Brazil and other countries.

Are we facing a second Nakba, displacing Palestinians on an unprecedented scale? 

Hever: The term "Nakba" is often misunderstood. For the Palestinians, the Nakba never ended. It will last as long as the refugees are not allowed to return to their homeland. 

Israelis have long denied the existence of the Nakba. The current far-right government sees the Nakba as just the moment of ethnic cleansing, the mass deportation of Palestinians in 1948. And the Israeli government is now threatening a second Nakba. If it is not stopped, we will see mass displacement.

How do you personally feel in this situation, when you think about your former homeland Israel and the people there? 

Hever: I feel betrayed by my Jewish friends; those who spoke about the Holocaust and the moral imperative that there should never be another genocide, and who are now participating in the dehumanisation of Palestinians and the legitimisation of the killing of civilians – people who have nowhere to flee to and no opportunity for surrender. At the same time, I am very worried about my friends and family members who are against the massacre but are not speaking out for fear of attacks by right-wing Israelis.

On the other hand, what should Israel do with regard to the future of the Gaza Strip in order to protect its own interests – in compliance with international humanitarian law?

Hever: When a state commits genocide, its national interests are no longer legitimate. Without the Israeli occupation, Hamas would not have existed; violence begins with oppression. As long as this oppression continues, Israel and the Israelis will not be safe. What should happen to Gaza? International law is very clear: the blockade is illegal and must be ended. The occupation imposes an obligation to protect the population and provide for their humanitarian needs, and the refugees, who make up two-thirds of the population of Gaza, have a right to return. Israel must abide by international law.

But how realistic is it that we will see the current Israeli government do that? 

Hever: It will happen sooner or later. The only question is: how many defenceless civilians will have to die before that happens? Again, the answer depends on the role of other influential countries. Will they send more weapons to Israel, or will they take a stand against the genocide?

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As a Jewish German, what are you now expect from the German government? 

Hever: To be honest, I have given up expecting anything from the German government. Its current attitude reveals that the culture of remembrance has completely failed. In a moment of crisis, in the face of genocide, German politicians remain silent. While Jews from all over the world are chanting "Stop the genocide" and "Not in our name" – in the USA, in Canada and also in Germany – the German government is closing its ears and only cares about selling more weapons to Israel. 

At the pogrom night ceremony, Chancellor Olaf Scholz made it very clear that those who do not accept Germany's position on Israel's security as German reasons of state are not real Germans. If he does not recognise me as a citizen of this state, why should I expect anything from him?

Interview conducted by Elisa Rheinheimer

© Qantara.de 2023

Shir Hever, political economist, was born in Israel in 1978. After studying in Tel-Aviv, he earned his doctorate in political science at the Free University of Berlin on the privatisation of Israeli security. His research focuses on the economics of Israeli occupation. Hever is managing director of the "Alliance for Justice between Israelis and Palestinians" – Buendnis für Gerechtigkeit zwischen Israelis und Palästinensern (BIP) e.V. and a board member of the association "Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East" – Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost. He is also involved in the "Alternative Information Center", a Palestinian-Israeli organisation in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour. Hever is the author of numerous academic papers and two books.