As Gazans Return to Destroyed Homes, Israeli Ministers Push Resettlement

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
The Egyptian Red Crescent prepares a large number of tents for displaced Palestinians in the area separating Khanios and Rafah in the western Gaza Strip on Saturday.

JERUSALEM – Tariq’s neighborhood in Gaza’s Jabalya Camp was rapidly becoming a war zone when he and his family of eight fled Israeli bombing in November. When he returned home Sunday – after weeks spent scrounging for food, on the run from artillery and firefights – it was unrecognizable.

“What remained was half a house,” he told The Washington Post on Wednesday. “Ruins we could live on.”

Tariq, who spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his first name out of concern for his safety, was among the first displaced residents to venture back to homes in Gaza this week after a partial withdrawal of Israeli troops from the north. They encountered destroyed buildings, ravaged roads, piles of rubble – some with decaying corpses still uncollected – and huge uncertainty about their future.

Amid the gradual downshift from full-scale war in some parts of Gaza, the fate of the enclave and its 2.1 million inhabitants remains far from clear. As some residents trickle back to their ruined neighborhoods, prominent politicians in Israel have questioned whether they should go home at all.

Controversial proposals from some Israeli officials to evacuate Gazans to camps in Egypt or other countries are causing rifts with Washington, Europe and the United Nations, and have been included in a case filed against Israel at the International Court of Justice alleging “genocide” in Gaza. Far-right members of the governing coalition have proposed sending displaced Palestinians to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the European Union or Chile.

The Post reported in December that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had urged President Biden and other U.S. officials to pressure Egypt to open its border with Gaza and accept Palestinian refugees. A report in Israeli media last week said Netanyahu was in discussions with the Democratic Republic of Congo to receive “voluntary migration” from Gaza.

Netanyahu’s office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment. The Congolese government did not respond to requests for comment.

Critics say such proposals could amount to the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian enclave.

“Forced displacements are strictly prohibited as a grave violation of [international humanitarian law] & words matter,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, wrote Wednesday on X, formerly Twitter, in response to calls by Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for Palestinians to leave Gaza.

“What needs to be done in the Gaza Strip is to encourage emigration,” Smotrich said in an interview Sunday with Israeli Army Radio. “If there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not 2 million Arabs, the entire discussion on the day after will be totally different.”

Ben Gvir echoed that call Tuesday, posting on X, that “the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the enclave to return home and live in security and protect [Israel Defense Forces] soldiers.”

U.S. officials say they have been reassured that the proposals do not represent official Israeli policy. But the State Department on Tuesday issued a rebuke to Smotrich and Ben Gvir: “This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement. “We have been clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land.”

In private, Israeli officials say the proposals stem from the political imperatives of Netanyahu’s coalition and his dependence on far-right parties to maintain power.

Ben Gvir and Smotrich are excluded from the emergency war cabinet, where security policy is being set. But their statements play well among religious settlers and activists who would like to see Israel annex Gaza rather than turn it over to a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority, as U.S. officials have advocated.

“The professionals in the military and the security establishment know this is not even in the realm of possibility,” said a person directly familiar with conversations inside the government, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “They know there is no future without Gazans in Gaza and the PA as part of the government.”

But the relocation proposals, and Netanyahu’s refusal to refute them, continue to roil relations with the international community as opposition grows to Israel’s war on Hamas, which has killed more than 22,000 people in Gaza and displaced nearly 90 percent of its inhabitants.

“This really is Israel shooting itself in the foot,” Shira Efron, director of research at the Israel Policy Forum, said of the proposals. “It would help if Netanyahu came out in his voice and said this is not the policy, but it’s election season and he has to cater to his base.”

Next week, Israel will respond to charges brought by South Africa at the International Court of Justice in The Hague that its actions in Gaza amount to genocide or a failure to prevent genocide. Ten pages of the 84-page filing are devoted to Israeli officials and soldiers, in their own words, calling for the forcible transfer of Palestinians and the destruction of Gaza.

Israel vociferously disputes the claims, which spokesman Eylon Levy called “South Africa’s absurd blood libel.”

“We have been clear in word and in deed that we are targeting the Oct. 7 monsters and are innovating ways to uphold international law, including the principles of proportionality, precaution and distinction in the context of a counterterror battlefield no army has faced before,” Levy said at a briefing.

But even some international law experts who believe Israel is adhering to the laws of war say the rhetoric coming from the far right undermines the country’s defense.

“It’s truly disturbing to look at the list,” Amichai Cohen, a law professor at Israel’s Ono Academic College, said of the statements compiled by South Africa. “Even though I know that most of these were either made by people who have no seat at the decision-making table or were taken out of context.”

For all the devastation in Gaza, and the fears that much of it has been rendered unlivable, Tariq and other Gazans who ventured homeward told The Post they will never leave.

We “would rather die and be buried under the soil of Gaza than go out and live in any other country,” Tariq said.

His family saw fewer tanks on the perilous journey home, and the sounds of gunfire and artillery were more sporadic. But their community was in ruins.

“The streets, schools, infrastructure, everything here was completely destroyed,” Tariq said.

The reports of relative calm also brought Moamen al-Harthani, 29, and his family back to their Jabalya neighborhood Sunday.

His hopes for their five-story building were dashed as soon as he reached his block: It was completely demolished. “I couldn’t remove even a single piece of fabric,” he said.

As they surveyed the neighborhood, they found boxes of spent ammunition and, in one house, plastic handcuffs. The walls of some homes were spattered in blood, he said, and others had Hebrew words carved into them.

Still, Harthani is determined to stay and rebuild.

“How can you think that I will leave Gaza?” he asked. “All I ask now is for the war to end and for me to live on the rubble of my house.”