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Israel-Palestine war: White House accused of endorsing Palestinian displacement in budget request

The Biden administration's wish for cash for 'potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries' reads to some as a green light for ethnic cleansing and a 'new Nakba'
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the Israel-Palestine conflict from the Oval Office on 19 October 2023 (AFP)
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation on the Israel-Palestine conflict from the Oval Office on 19 October 2023 (AFP)

The Biden administration has asked Congress to fund the “potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries”, part of a $105bn request made last week which also includes money for Israel and Ukraine.

In a 20 October letter, the Office of Budget and Management said the current crisis “could well result in displacement across border and higher regional humanitarian needs and funding may be used to meet evolving programming requirements outside of Gaza”.

For some, this reads as standard contingency planning. 

But for others, in light of an American push earlier this month for Egypt to open a humanitarian corridor and the reluctance of US officials to call for Israeli restraint, it suggests the White House is endorsing the mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza.

“This is diabolical really. They should know better,” Hanan Ashrawi, a former leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, told Middle East Eye.

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“This is justifying ethnic cleansing. They know very well that neither Egypt will accept them, nor Jordan, nor will the Palestinians leave. So this is really encouraging Israel to continue with its genocidal plans and measures.”

Lara Friedman, president of the Washington-based Foundation for Middle East Peace, said the Biden administration has made it clear that there are no red lines for Israel.

“That includes not putting any red lines on where Palestinians end up,” she said. 

“You’re not saying they can’t do it publicly and you’re already pulling together funding to support it if it happens. How can you not see that as a green light?”

'A new Nakba'

Details of the request are laid out in one paragraph on Page 40 of the Office of Budget and Management letter:

Funding would also provide life-saving humanitarian assistance in Israel, and in areas impacted by the situation in Israel. These resources would support displaced and conflict affected civilians, including Palestinian refugees in Gaza and the West Bank, and to address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries. This would include food and non-food items, healthcare, emergency shelter support, water and sanitation assistance, and emergency protection. This would also include potential critical humanitarian infrastructure costs needed for the refugee population to provide access to basic, life-sustaining support. This crisis could well result in displacement across border and higher regional humanitarian needs, and funding may be used to meet evolving programming requirements outside of Gaza. 

It is not immediately clear from the wording whether items like humanitarian infrastructure and water and sanitation would be for Palestinians inside or outside Gaza. 

Repeated requests for clarification from the White House and the State Department went unanswered.

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For Rashid Khalidi, the Palestinian-American historian and Edward Said Professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, there is only one way to read what was written.

"You read that. It’s a new Nakba," he said, referring to the mass Palestinian displacement of 1948.

"I'm very disturbed by it. I don't think that the language permits multiple interpretations."

He shared his concerns with the offices of several members of Congress this week and said he was told by a Senate staffer that the request did not, in their assessment, insinuate that the US is encouraging Palestinians to flee because the negative ramifications are clear.

But Khalidi said he believes it's important to see the request against the backdrop of reports that US officials were trying to persuade Egypt to take Palestinian refugees.

'It’s never been American policy to actively aid and abet the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine'

- Rashid Khalidi, historian

Egypt and Jordan have since rebuffed any notion that they will receive refugees fleeing Gaza, with King Abdullah II of Jordan calling it “a red line”.

“That is a plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground,” said the king, emphasising that he was also speaking on behalf of Egypt.

“This is a situation of humanitarian dimension that has to be dealt with inside of Gaza and the West Bank, and not to try and push the Palestinian challenge and their future onto other peoples’ shoulders.”

This is the case so far but, cautions Khalidi, it doesn't mean that in future the administration wouldn't try to apply further pressure on Egypt.

"If that was American policy last week, it may be what is wrapped into this budget request," he said. 

"It’s never been American policy to actively aid and abet the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine. This is the worst thing Biden could possibly do."

The end game

On 7 October, hundreds of Palestinian fighters attacked Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip, killing around 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 220 people captive.

Since then, Israel has waged a relentless bombing campaign on Gaza, killing more than 7,000 Palestinians. The vast majority of both tolls are civilians, many of them children.

The US request comes amid a litany of open calls since the Hamas-led attack for the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza by prominent Israelis, including current and former politicians, military leaders and journalists.

The Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy published a paper last week describing the current moment as “a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip”.

The Israeli think tank suggests that the population of around 2.2 million people be moved into vacant housing units in Egypt, including in two satellite cities in Cairo, for between $5bn-$8bn. 

Israel-Palestine war: Proposals to push Gaza's Palestinians into Egypt stoke fear of settler replacement
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“This sum reflects a value of only between one percent and one and a half percent of the GDP of the State of Israel and can easily be financed by the State of Israel, even without any international aid,” the report says.

“This deal between Egypt and Israel can be reached within a few days after the start of the flow of immigrants from Gaza to Egypt through the Rafah crossing.”

Calcalist, an Israeli daily business paper, first reported this week on a separate plan, circulated within the Israeli intelligence ministry, which calls for the transfer of Palestinians in Gaza to the northern Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.

According to this plan, as reported by the paper, tent cities would be established in Sinai southwest of Gaza, a humanitarian corridor would be established and then cities would be constructed in the peninsula's north.

“At the same time, a sterile zone several kilometres wide will be established inside Egypt south of the border with Israel so that the evacuated residents will not be able to return,” the Calcalist reported.

Against this backdrop, Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace also sees a troubling trend among analysts who say that Israel hasn't defined its end game and that there is no military solution in Gaza, which she said "ignores the possibility of ending Palestinians in Gaza".

"Then whatever is left, whatever percentage of Palestinians from Gaza survive, are somebody else’s problem because they aren’t in Gaza anymore. That is a military solution," Friedman said.

"To at least not consider that that is the objective here feels to me like analytical malfeasance."

'Cue from Israel'

The moves on the ground so far suggest to Ashrawi that this is not a far-fetched notion.

The former Palestinian negotiator noted that a million Palestinians in Gaza's north, including Gaza City, were told by Israel to move to the coastal enclave's south to avoid death and were then shelled on their way.

Then, she said, "when they reached the south, they were shelled and bombed when they arrived to a supposedly safe destination".

"So they started going back and saying we would rather die in our own homes."

The funding request that forsees Palestinians fleeing, she said, "is symptomatic of American political moves. They get their cue from Israel".

'The US is buying Israel more time, sending it weapons and more money, refusing any kind of ceasefire'

- Hanan Ashrawi, former Palestinian negotiator

"Instead of dealing with the issue seriously and saying 'no, Israel has to stop this, stop the massacres and stop expelling Palestinians', the US is buying Israel more time, sending it weapons and more money, refusing any kind of ceasefire."

Khalidi said that in place of a budget request that is "complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine", he would want to see the administration "force the Israelis to allow food, water, medicine and fuel into Gaza".

"I would like the US to insist that the Israelis severely limit anything they do in Gaza and to stay within the boundaries of international humanitarian law. I could go on and on," he said. 

While he said that the US has been complicit in helping Israel over the decades, offering weapons and blocking dozens of measures at the UN Security Council that would have stopped its occupation and settlement expansion, the support suggested in the request is a new turn.

"You can list crimes of commission and ommission by the United States, a list as long as your arms," he said. "They’ve never done this before."

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