Countries traditionally aligned with Israel are warning its right-wing government against contemplating a displacement of people who live in the Gaza Strip, as Israeli officials repeatedly suggest Canada could take in Palestinians.
This week, Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said his country should “encourage migration” of Palestinians from Gaza and re-establish Israeli settlements there, echoing similar comments from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller condemned remarks from both politicians as “inflammatory and irresponsible.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called them “unacceptable” comments while the German foreign ministry rejected them “in the strongest terms,” with a spokesman saying they were unhelpful for peace.
Last month, members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party reportedly discussed countries willing to accept Palestinians in Gaza as refugees.
The report by the Israel Hayom newspaper cited unnamed sources as saying a member of the Knesset had pointed to Canada, mentioning its new program offering limited visas to relatives of Canadian citizens who are seeking passage out of Gaza.
The report has not been independently verified by The Canadian Press.
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Marc Miller said Canada will not condone the mass displacement of Palestinians.
“In response to the situation in Gaza, our priority is to reunite families in a way that does not hinder their ability to return to Gaza, when circumstances allow,” Miller’s press secretary Bahoz Dara Aziz said in a statement Wednesday.
In a social-media post last week, Miller said that he has never discussed the transfer of Gazans out of the Hamas-controlled Palestinian territory.
“It’s obscene that I’d have to say this, but at no time have I discussed with any member of the Israeli government the so-called ‘voluntary transfer’ of Gazans out of Gaza,” Miller posted online on Dec. 29.
“Anyone pretending otherwise is full of it.”
Miller’s office says he has had no contact with Israel’s government at all.
Next week, Canada is expected to launch a temporary immigration program for the extended family members of Canadians who are trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip.
The program would offer three-year visas to up to 1,000 Palestinians whose family members are willing to support them while they are in Canada.
“Vulnerable people are looking for safe haven and to be reunited with their loved ones in Canada, while also having aspirations of one day returning to Gaza,” Dara Aziz said in the statement.
“This program not only allows for this but was constructed with this in mind.”
Palestinian Canadian Shaymaa Ziara has been pleading with the federal government to help her father, siblings and pregnant sister-in-law out of the Gaza Strip since the conflict began in October.
In November, one of her brothers was killed when their neighbour’s house was bombed.
Even now, the prospect of leaving Gaza without knowing if they will be able to return is a difficult one for her family, she said in an interview.
“If given the choice between staying on the land right now or saving their lives, I want to save their life while preserving their rights to go back to their land and be able to rebuild their home,” said Ziara, who lives in Markham, Ont.
Her grandmother was among 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced during the Israel-Palestinian war in 1948, and was forced to leave her home in Jaffa, north of the Gaza Strip.
“She never got to go home to her house in Jaffa,” Ziara said. “I don’t want the same thing to happen for my family.”
During the first month of the latest Israel-Hamas war, an Israeli government ministry drafted a proposal to transfer all 2.3 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip into Egypt and have them resettled into other countries.
The memo specifically noted that Canada’s “lenient” immigration practices could make the country a target for resettlement. Israeli officials have confirmed the document’s veracity but said the proposal is not government policy.
In November, Ram Ben Barak, former deputy director of intelligence agency Mossad, told Israeli television in November that for Palestinians, “it’s better to be a refugee in Canada” than to live in Gaza.
University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau said the recent statements by Smotrich and Ben Gvir amount to “openly advocating for ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”
In a joint statement with Australia and New Zealand on Dec. 12, the federal government called for a pause in hostilities in Gaza and progress toward a sustainable ceasefire.
In the statement, Canada opposed “the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, the re-occupation of Gaza, any reduction in territory and any use of siege or blockade.”
Later that month, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Paula Gaviria Betancur, warned that Israel appears to be seeking to permanently alter the composition of Gaza’s population.
“As evacuation orders and military operations continue to expand and civilians are subjected to relentless attacks on a daily basis, the only logical conclusion is that Israel’s military operation in Gaza aims to deport the majority of the civilian population en masse,” Gaviria Betancur wrote in a Dec. 22 statement.
Israel’s government spokesman Eylon Levy responded by saying that his country asked Palestinians to move to a humanitarian zone within the Gaza Strip, from which Hamas then launched rockets.
“We want civilians to be protected in areas where Hamas is not already using them as human shields,” Levy said on social media on Dec. 26.
“The only people encouraging the mass displacement of Gazans are those who falsely label most of them ‘refugees’ and indulge their dreams of relocating into Israel through violent struggle, instead of living in peace alongside us.”
The war began after Hamas militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.
The Israeli military has bombarded Gaza almost constantly since then, through air strikes and a large-scale ground operation. Authorities in the territory say the war has killed 22,300 Palestinians.
The Palestinian ambassador to Canada, Mona Abuamara, has repeatedly said that her people fear Israel wants to evacuate the Gaza Strip and take it over.
“You are seeing these ministers who come out and talk about wiping out cities (or) throwing a nuclear bomb on the Palestinian people,” Abuamara, who represents the Palestinian General Delegation to Canada, said in an interview last month.
In November, Netanyahu suspended his heritage minister, Amichai Eliyahu, after he said in an interview that dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza was an option.
In March, Smotrich called for the West Bank village of Huwara to be “erased” following violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
“Israel wants to — and you hear it every day — to send all the Gazans out. That’s a solution that they think would bring the calm that they want,” Abuamara said, adding that she believes many Israelis disagree with what their country’s government is doing.
“The Palestinian people don’t want to leave their land.”
By Laura Osman and Dylan Robertson in Ottawa
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 3, 2024.
— With files from The Associated Press.