Glassboro, NJ (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – As a scholar of war, migration, and refugee resettlement—but more importantly as a human being—I have watched the death and mass displacement caused by the Israeli assault on Gaza with mounting horror. Since October 7, 2023, Israel has killed more than 25,000 people and injured another 61,000, the majority civilians. Nearly two million people in Gaza, eighty-five percent of the population, have been driven from their homes by Israeli bombing.
The current crisis in Gaza is part of a long history of expulsion and displacement of Palestinians. Since the 1880s, Zionist Jewish settlers, pre-state militias, and later the Israeli military have engaged in the project of maximizing land under their control while minimizing the number of Palestinians in that territory. Dispossession of millions of Palestinians is foundational to the creation of the State of Israel and its continued expansion into more Palestinian territory.
Individual Stories Trace Larger Phenomena
As part of my ongoing research with immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa, in 2021 I interviewed a woman pseudonymously called Mariam from Gaza. At the time of our conversation, she was seeking asylum in Canada. Her personal history is one of millions that speaks to the ongoing processes of violent displacement that have shaped Palestinian life for more than 100 years. Mariam told me:
- “I lived my whole life as a refugee. … I’ve always had this feeling of displacement, that anywhere I lived was temporary, even as a child. … I went to a [United Nations Refugee Works Administration] school, which was for refugees. And I learned about the story of how my grandparents lost their homes and how despite living in Gaza, and my parents building their lives there, I didn’t feel like that’s where I belonged. … And right now, I view myself as a refugee because there’s a true urgency. And a real sense of not being safe if I went back home.”
Mariam is a third-generation refugee. Her mother and father were born in Gaza after their parents were forced to flee their homes during the 1948 Nakba. Mariam’s grandparents were among the 750,000 Palestinians ethnically cleansed by pre-state Zionist militias from what became Israel. Those refugees’ homes were expropriated, many of their towns and villages were destroyed, and they were denied the right to ever return. In the war, Israel took control of 78% of historic Palestine and the remaining 22% came under control of Egypt (Gaza) and Jordan (the West Bank and East Jerusalem).
Decades-Long Israeli Military Occupation
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel captured Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. This marks the beginning of an ongoing 56-year illegal military occupation. During the war, Israel expelled 300,000 more Palestinians from the captured territory. Many of those fleeing Israeli bombing since October 7 have been displaced multiple times over. Seventy percent of Gaza’s population are refugees and their descendants who were forced to flee their homes in 1948 and 1967.
In the decades since the occupation began, Palestinians in the occupied territories have faced forced removal from their homes; constant attacks on their property and livelihoods; expropriation and creeping annexation of their land by the Israeli government; and attempts to erase all vestiges of Palestinian history, culture, and society from the physical landscape.
In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, there are now hundreds of thousands of extremist settlers, supported by the Israeli military, engaged in the continued project of violent dispossession and annexation. Settler violence has intensified since October 7. Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza in 2005; however, it maintains an “illegal air, sea and land blockade.”
Unprecedented Crisis in Gaza
Now in her early 30s, Mariam lived much of her life in Gaza under siege. She told me that she had lived under constant Israeli surveillance. She also had a persistent fear of being caught in one of the repeated Israeli bombing campaigns that have killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza since 2008. The scale and scope of the current Israeli onslaught are far greater than any previous assault.
Not only have the majority of Gazans been forced from their homes, but Israeli bombardment has destroyed 70% of the houses in Gaza as well as hundreds of medical facilities, schools, universities, government buildings, and religious sites. This means that the majority of Palestinians in Gaza have no homes to go back to and the basic infrastructure of civil society has been decimated. Academic and legal experts and the South African government’s petition to the International Court of Justice have persuasively argued that Israel is committing genocide.
Open Calls for Ethnic Cleansing
Calls for the permanent expulsion of most or all of the Palestinians in Gaza have become common since October 7. On January 17, 2024, for example, Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir repeated his position that Israel must “occupy Gaza” and give “encouragement” to Palestinians to leave. The long-serving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes Palestinian self-determination and has long advocated ethnic cleansing. In 1989, for example, Netanyahu stated: “Israel should have exploited the repression of the demonstrations in China [Tiananmen Square], when world attention focused on that country, to carry out mass expulsions among the Arabs of the territories.” These are far from fringe opinions. When polled in 2016, 48% of Jewish Israelis agreed with the statement “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel.” Throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel is actively carrying out that program.
Immediate Ceasefire, Long-Term Justice
I close by returning to Mariam. She told me: “Home for me is where I feel safe. … [I]f I could go home [to Gaza] and feel safe, that would be my home. … If I could feel like I could build a life and be secure and safe, that would be my home, but I haven’t felt that anywhere. So, I guess, I’m yet to know where home is.” Mariam already could not find safety in Gaza in 2021. The situation in 2024 is exponentially worse. Because of the catastrophic situation in Gaza, Israel must be pushed for an immediate ceasefire. Gazans desperately need the bombing to stop, access to medical care, food, water, and shelter. After that, it is critical to hold all perpetrators of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity accountable.
As I noted at the outset, displacement is at the core of the injustices inflicted on Palestinians. The only way to guarantee safety, security, peace, and justice for Mariam, her family and millions of other Palestinians is to finally address the harms of expulsion and dispossession at the foundation of the State of Israel. It is up to those who have been harmed to determine the most appropriate way to do this. It may include reparation, reconciliation, and finally upholding the well-established right of return that has been denied to millions of Palestinians for decades.