OPINIONS

Sat 11 Nov 2023 3:14 pm - Jerusalem Time

A Conspiracy of Silence

MICHAEL YOUNG

As Israel speaks openly about the ethnic cleansing of Gaza’s Palestinians, Western countries are nowhere to be seen or heard.


Israel has made great efforts over the decades to redefine its ethnic cleansing of the Arab population of Palestine in 1948 as being a consequence of the Arabs’ voluntary departure from their homes, or a result of their obeying orders from their leaders to leave. In that way, Israelis have sought to undermine the accusation that their state was built on the foundations of what is considered to be a crime against humanity. Yet today, the forcible transfer of the Palestinian population of Gaza to Egypt is being openly discussed by the most senior Israeli leaders and by former officials.


The Financial Times this week reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to persuade European leaders to put pressure on Egypt to accept refugees from Gaza. While one Western diplomat did try to qualify this by saying that Netanyahu wanted the Egyptians to take in the Palestinians “at least during the conflict,” the implications of this caveat are absurd. Netanyahu has no interest whatsoever in the wellbeing of a population his military has been massacring for the past three weeks. What he wants is that the door to Egypt be opened so that Israel can permanently close it once the Palestinians are out. That’s what happened in 1948, and only a fool would believe it can’t happen again.

Netanyahu’s lobbying comes amid reports that Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence has released a document in which it lists a series of options open to the Israeli authorities for dealing with the Palestinians in Gaza. Among these is that Israel “evacuate the Gazan population to Sinai” and “create a sterile zone of several kilometers inside Egypt and not allow the population to return to activity or residence near the Israeli border.” The document continues that Israel must strive to mobilize global support for such a project, particularly from the United States. Even admitting to an inaccurate translation from Google translate, the accuracy of the recommendation is incontestable given that Netanyahu is peddling the same idea.

That is precisely why Israel’s claims that the Ministry of Intelligence document is merely a “concept paper,” or a hypothetical exercise, is so implausible. Many unprecedented ideas in government begin below the radar, precisely because that is a sensible, bureaucratic way to ensure that they are not shot down immediately by competing bureaucracies. In fact, it is shocking on its own that Israel has admitted that ethnic cleansing is now part of its conceptual toolkit for the Palestinians.

If there are doubts about this, a repulsive article by Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, should put them to rest. Eiland proposed “options” of his own for addressing the problem of Gaza’s Palestinians. One of these is “to create conditions where life in Gaza becomes unsustainable” so that “the entire population of Gaza will either move to Egypt or move to the Gulf.” Ultimately, Gaza must “become a place where no human being can exist, and I say this as a means rather than an end. I say this because there is no other option for ensuring the security of the State of Israel. We are fighting an existential war.”

No doubt Eiland will continue to be invited by think tanks and universities around the world, even though his article endorses war crimes (collective punishment; willfully causing great suffering to body and health; destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity; and unlawful deportation) and crimes against humanity, according to the ethnic cleansing definition adopted by a United Nations Committee of Experts that looked into violations of international humanitarian law in the former Yugoslavia. Therefore, the belief among Israel’s admirers that the country is a moral paragon is not only laughable, it is contradicted by the activities and musings of Israeli officials, present and former.

Eiland’s justification—security—is interesting, because it is one to which scoundrels everywhere resort when rationalizing terrible crimes. So that Israel can be secure, some 2 million Gazans need to be driven into the desert, like a lost tribe. To kill a single Hamas official and enhance Israeli security, an entire neighborhood in the Jabaliya refugee camp has to be obliterated, with heavy loss of life. To protect Israel, gangs of armed religious vigilantes on the West Bank—people who in most countries would be placed on terrorism watchlists—are allowed to force Palestinian villagers from their homes or kill unarmed Palestinians harvesting olives.

What is so surprising is that Western countries have watched all this unfold, but have used Hamas’s vicious actions on October 7 as an excuse for doing nothing about it. Even as Israel slaughters thousands of people in Gaza, with many more under the rubble of downed buildings, the United States and its European allies have either refused to impose a ceasefire or have continued to voice outrage over Israeli deaths, while appearing unmoved by the victims of Israeli retaliation. This comes despite staggering statements by Israeli military officials that for Israel “the emphasis [in Gaza’s bombardment] is on damage and not on accuracy.”


What may emerge is a foundational moment for the West’s domination of global affairs. An early victim of the Gaza war is certainly Ukraine, the defense of which was portrayed in Western countries as the equivalent of rejecting the kind of appeasement that handed parts of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. 

The ethical underpinnings of the Western narrative on Ukraine have collapsed with the apartment buildings of Gaza. Who will buy into U.S. or European rhetoric about Russian evilness again when so many Western countries are indifferent to the mass killings committed by Israel’s armed forces? In this context, the Americans should be careful. They could well find themselves isolated when they make the rounds for global allies to help them prevent an eventual Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

It pains me to mention the most simplistic argument one hears in such situations, namely that the West is racist when it comes to differentiating Arabs from those peoples they regard as more Westernized, such as the Israelis. Not only do I find that line problematic on so many levels, but given the proliferating protests in Western capitals against what Israel is doing in Gaza, I can’t help but acknowledge that many Americans and Europeans, not to mention a surprising number of Jews among them, have come down on the right side in defending all the victims, without exception, since the October 7 attacks began.

However, the elites in the United States and Europe have a different perspective, one that is being challenged by growing segments of their own populations. It is a perspective that regards Israel’s establishment as compensation for what is perhaps the greatest crime in history, the Holocaust; that regards Israel as an extension of the West and a reliable ally throughout the last half-century; and that views Israel as modern, democratic, and liberal in a sea of intolerance and backwardness. Many parts of this version can be questioned, of course, so to hear Olaf Scholz declare that “Israel is a democratic state guided by very humanitarian principles, so we can be certain that the Israeli army will respect the rules that arise from international law in everything it does,” makes you wonder whether the German chancellor actually believes such nonsense, or in fact owns a television.

As the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes to divide Western societies even more, the mood among elites in Europe and the United States is bound to slowly change. But for now, such a shift is not remotely visible. Proof of this is that the Israelis are now bluntly talking about the ethnic cleansing of over 2 million Palestinians in Gaza, while Western countries continue to engage in a shameful conspiracy of silence.

Carnegie Endowment 

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A Conspiracy of Silence