The Middle East's long history of displacement casts dark shadow on Gaza

Israel is hoping the desperate situation it created in Gaza will discourage Palestinians from staying.

Israel is making Gaza uninhabitable which some believe to be an attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land, 75 years after the Nakba of 1948.
Israel is making Gaza uninhabitable which some believe to be an attempt to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from their land, 75 years after the Nakba of 1948.

The Middle East's long history of displacement casts dark shadow on Gaza

As diplomatic efforts to try to end the war between Hamas and Israel are stepped up, the question of what happens the day after the war looms large.

There has been much speculation over who will govern Gaza once the fighting stops. But another central question also needs attention: What will happen to the millions of people of Gaza who have been displaced? And how will their fate shape the future once the guns have fallen silent?

Some Israeli officials have spoken out in support of population transfers from Gaza. The sheer scale of destruction makes it difficult for many residents to be able to return. This a long-term human tragedy that the international community must prioritise.

The displacement amid this destruction is just as staggering.

After four months of fighting, 1.9 million people (85% of the population) have been forced to flee their homes. Their prospects are even more bleak given the alarming and explicit calls for ethnic cleansing from Israeli politicians.

Palestinians are particularly wary, given their expulsion from their lands upon Israel's creation in 1948, known as the Nakba or catastrophe. In fact, many of Gaza's residents are from other cities in historic Palestine, which are now Israeli cities.

Palestinians arrive in the southern Gaza town of Rafah after fleeing an Israeli ground and air offensive in the nearby city of Khan Younis on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

Read more: Palestinians in Gaza in the midst of a modern-day Nakba

Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said that the solution to the war was the “voluntary” transfer of Gazans, while Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that Israel needs to establish a Jewish settlement in Gaza. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for international help to transfer Gaza's Palestinians to Egypt.

Deliberate displacement

Although the United States issued a statement on 2 January rejecting Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s declarations about the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza, Ben-Gvir renewed his comments in another public appearance on 28 January.

Israel continues to deny that it is deliberately targeting civilians in Gaza, but the reality on the ground is that the infrastructure in two-thirds of Gaza has been damaged or destroyed. The United Nations has described Gaza as “uninhabitable”.

One of Israel’s intentions is to set up a “security belt” in northern Gaza. And it continues to grab more land in the occupied West Bank. This paints a bleak future for Gaza’s residents. It makes implementing a two-state solution to the wider crisis impossible.

Rhetoric used by other Israeli politicians has called for temporary displacement. However, recent experiences in Libya and Syria show how reversing any such mass movement of people is significantly difficult.

Al Majalla highlights different experiences of stubborn displacement in the Middle East, which could serve as a potential template for the future of Gaza.

The UN has described Gaza as uninhabitable. More than two-thirds of its infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed by Israel, painting a bleak future for its residents.

Lebanese Christians in south Beirut

The Lebanese civil war did not spark a mass refugee crisis, but it did internally displace a quarter of the Lebanese population (around 1 million people). Almost half were unable to return home after the war ended in 1990, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, effectively making the displacement permanent.  

It also changed the demographic distribution of the country. During the battles in the Druze-majority Chouf mountains in the 1980s between Christian and Druze militias, thousands of Christians fled. In the mid-1990s, the Lebanese government announced plans to repatriate them, but not everyone returned.

The changes caused by displacement in the southern suburbs of Beirut were even more acute.

Before the war, it was a mixed area, home to Muslims and Christians. During the war, it was overrun by Lebanese and Palestinian militias, in addition to the Syrian army.

Israel's occupation of south Lebanon caused thousands of people from the area to flee north. Beirut's southern suburb was one of the main destinations for those internally displaced people from southern Lebanon, who happened to be mainly Shiite Muslims.

Lebanese children stuffed in the back of a car hit by shrapnel flee the southern town of Nabatiyeh pounded by some 700 Israeli artillery shells on 15 April 1996.

This combination of displacement and the rise of militias completely changed the face of Beirut's southern suburb, causing a strain on the area's Christian population. The rise of Hezbollah in the mid-1980s worsened the situation.

Hezbollah's 1985 charter outlined the group's rejection of the Lebanese state, instead calling for the establishment of an Islamic state. The Shiite population in the southern suburbs of Beirut gave the group the ideal conditions to take root.

Christian houses were attacked and taken over by force, and the group set about trying to change the lifestyle in the area to make it more "Islamic". It closed down shops selling alcohol and shot at houses playing loud music.

Nowadays, few Christians remain there. Even if those who fled came back, they would be returning to a very different place. The complete transformation of the area's social and political atmosphere is a major deterrent for them.

Nowadays, few Lebanese Christians remain in south Beirut. Even if those who fled came back, they would be returning to a very different place one that has become a Hezbollah stronghold.

Syrian refugees and IDPs

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Syria has 6.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs). There are also 5.2 million refugees who left the country. 

The population of Syria before the war was around 21 million. Almost half of the Syrian population has been displaced.

Throughout the conflict, UNHCR registered only 500,000 returnees. Although actual numbers may be higher because people may return without being registered by the UNHCR, even a generous estimate remains a small proportion of the overall number of IDPs and refugees.

Vast destruction means that even if people want to return to their homes, their properties either no longer exist or have been taken over as part of a gentrification campaign in certain parts of the country championed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Areas around Damascus are being groomed as sites for luxury property projects that only the regime and its profiteers can benefit from. The original residents are being deliberately prevented from returning.

The al-Assad regime and its ally Hezbollah are engaged in what amounts to demographic engineering. 

Displaced Syrians in a truck transporting their belongings pass through the town of Hazano in the northern countryside of Idlib, fleeing north amid an ongoing regime offensive.

In Syrian areas bordering Lebanon, Hezbollah orchestrated population swaps between villages, transferring Sunni residents out of some villages and replacing them with Shiite residents or emptying some villages of their residents and transforming those areas into military bases and centres for the manufacture and transfer of drugs.

The change caused by these actions makes these sites inaccessible to their original residents.   

Israel's far-right view of Gaza's future

Israeli far-right extremists are aiming for a scenario in Gaza that has echoes of what has happened in Lebanon and Syria: They want to use the war in Gaza to take over the land and make it difficult for them to stay.

Even if this attempt at population transfer fails, the outlook for Palestinians living there is grim. Reconstructing Gaza will be a lengthy and costly process, and the livelihoods of its residents have been significantly damaged.

When the fighting stops, the displaced people of Gaza will still be dealing with a huge economic loss. With farmland and livestock destroyed, they will face continued challenges to food security.

Even if Israel's attempt at population transfer fails, the outlook for Palestinians is grim. Reconstructing Gaza will be a lengthy and costly process.

The damage to the health infrastructure discourages the return of civilians to areas without medical facilities.

With whole neighbourhoods razed, displaced Gazans are likely to end up in makeshift camps similar to those seen in Syria. Children will be left without school as their parents struggle to make a living. The consequences of this hardship on people's mental health are immense.

A war of a few months will result in years of devastation for the people of Gaza. The effects of the conflict will not stop when the fighting ends.

The worry is that the international community focuses on the military and political aspects of the war and does not dedicate adequate attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, which will continue even after the guns fall silent.

The cases of Lebanon and Syria are a sobering reminder of the grave consequences of inaction.

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