Eight days into the new year, the war in Gaza has only intensified. Nearly 23,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, and most of the remaining population has been displaced. On 11 November 2023, Israel’s agriculture minister Avi Dichter told a television channel that the war would be the Gaza catastrophe, “a second Nakba” – a reference to the 1948 violent displacement of Palestinians, which culminated in the creation of the state of Israel. In late December, South Africa filed a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice alleging that the country is engaging in “genocidal acts” in Gaza; Israel intends to fight the case.
The New Statesman’s Bruno Maçães spoke with Gideon Levy, the Israeli journalist and author, about the current state of the war and the possibility for peace. Levy, now 71, previously worked as an aide and spokesman for Shimon Peres, then leader of Israel’s Labor Party, before becoming a reporter and writer for the leading Israeli daily Haaretz in 1982. He has won many prizes, including in 2021 the Sokolov award, Israel’s top prize for journalism. His book The Punishment of Gaza, published by Verso in 2010, details Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s invasion of Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009.
The first part of their wide-ranging conversation is below; the second part will be published later this week.
Bruno Maçães: I want to talk about two things. There are two scenarios that everyone is discussing and yet both seem somehow impossible. First, the mass expulsion from Gaza; and second, how to revive the two-state solution or some other way forward. But let me start with the possibility that everyone is very alarmed about: mass expulsion. When I talk to diplomats at the United Nations and in Europe, what they say off the record is quite terrifying: they are convinced that Israel’s war is moving towards something like a mass expulsion of Palestinians. Not the totality of residents in Gaza, but a very high number. There are statements indicating this goal from many ministers in Israel, including the prime minister. On at least two occasions Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to the possibility of “voluntary migration”, as he calls it.
What is your assessment of this possibility? What people tell me, for example at the UN, is that the intentions of the Israeli authorities are almost irrelevant. Just look at the situation on the ground: so many buildings have been destroyed. Conditions are now close to unliveable in Gaza. At what point does the possibility of expulsion or exodus become almost inevitable?
Gideon Levy: Everything you say is true. The only missing part of it is that no one is going to accept them. Who is going to absorb two million Palestinians? Egypt, no; no other Arab country either. There are many other reasons why it shouldn’t happen. It’s illegitimate even to suggest it. I mean, Israel expelled already those people – and their fathers and grandfathers – once from Palestine to Gaza. Who is Israel to decide their future? Gaza is not a sovereign part of Israel. Imagine if Israel were to decide to expel a Jordanian to Iraq. It is so absurd. And the problem is [the whole discourse of expulsion] became normalised. Maybe they cover it up with all kinds of soft presentations like [calling it] a humanitarian solution. It will be “voluntarily”. But I don’t see anyone – and correct me if I’m wrong – I don’t see anyone in the world who is going to absorb two million people.
BM: Look at, for example, Egypt in the hard financial situation that it is in. If it is offered a lot of money and it was under a lot of pressure, both from Israel and the United States, you don’t see that possibility?
GL: Until now, they have been very, very tough. They are really preventing injured people, at least [many] of them, to [come] into Egypt to get medical treatment. They even prevented, until now, Palestinians from Gaza with Egyptian nationality into Egypt. I’m not an expert on Egypt. Maybe money can buy everything, but President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi understands that admitting two million people, Palestinians, into his poor and not stable country might be a game-changer for Egypt. I don’t see him agreeing to it, even if he will be very well paid.
BM: Help me understand something puzzling about the Israeli discourse: there is a kind of unanimity in these calls for mass expulsion and, in some cases, even worse such as calls to destroy Gaza. One would expect, for example, the judicial system to do something about this; these are crimes under international law, particularly some of the harshest suggestions about killing everyone in Gaza. But there are very few voices criticising the operation. How did we get to this point in a vibrant democratic society? Of course, 7 October is important. Is it the only reason or is this an element of a longer process taking place in Israel?
GL: It’s a longer process. I don’t remember a time with such discourse in Israel [as there is now]. There was discourse like this, but it was never legitimate. Now it’s all legitimate. Now we are facing the International Court of Justice [and] where those expressions of views are going to be crucial. Even though they know that [this discourse] might really be the best proof for declaring a genocide, because the legal definition of genocide means an intention. Here you have the intention. Now [some] try to say those are marginal figures; this is not the policy of the government. I have news for them: a minister of finance and a minister of national security [the far-right politicians Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, respectively] are part of the government. They are not marginal. And if they don’t represent the government, the prime minister had to fire them a long time ago. If he does not, he agrees with their ideas. This must be clear to the Court.
Now, how did we get here? It is an outcome of decades of brainwashing and incitement inside Israeli society, [especially] in the last 15 years of a right-wing government. The discourse started gradually by delegitimising any contrary ideas; negotiation, two-state solution, compromise – they became delegitimised. And then Israel, all of a sudden, finds itself with only one solution.
[See also: “They want monsters”]
You can tell by the legitimisation of this discourse that Israel is deteriorating horribly. The most important thing, and you mentioned it, is how unanimous it is. It’s not only the right-wingers. You cannot even show some empathy to Gaza, to the suffering of Gaza, which Israel doesn’t see at all. The average Israeli saw nothing [of what has unfolded in] Gaza, only the soldiers there see it. The bravery, the sacrifice, the hostages and families, this is shown non-stop, but not a single image of the suffering of two million people in Gaza. I think it’s the darkest time of Israel, maybe ever.
BM: I know many Israelis that think: “If we force a mass expulsion, if we solve the question once and for all, Palestinians will eventually forget.” It may be a great crime, but many countries have committed great crimes. The United States has eliminated the native population, many millions were killed. Today, barely anyone talks about it. Yes, many Israelis would have to live with guilt, but the new generation will forget about it.
GL: No, they will not carry any guilt. [For Israelis] everything will be justified. The barbaric attack on 7 October [means that Israel thinks] they have the right to do whatever they want, no matter what – no limits. So forget about guilt.
You also have a case study: the first Nakba. Palestinians didn’t forget. Generation after generation, they are very much loaded with the heritage of the Nakba.
It depends also how their life will look later on. What did the Nakba do to them? Put them in refugee camps so their life is miserable. But even those who [migrated and built lives elsewhere], you think that they forgot the Nakba? You think they don’t dream about getting home? Most of them, not all of them. Even those who are well off in Chile, in the United States, and in Germany, they don’t feel at home. Look how they are vocal now in the campuses in the United States. They feel very attached to the issue, the grandsons, and the great-grandsons of the victims of the Nakba.
If you move two million people to the Sinai desert, do you think they will stay there? And do what? Look at the refugees in Lebanon. They don’t have any human rights, any civil rights. You think in Egypt it will be better? Much worse. There will be a new struggle coming to the world, and it will be, again, very violent.
You spoke only about Gaza – what about the West Bank? Three million people, [Israel] will also deport them. And what about 1.5 million Israeli Palestinians, who are Israeli citizens? We will deport them as well. I mean, it’s so monstrous. I can’t imagine this as a solution to anything. You can also kill them all, extermination; this is maybe even a better solution because this is really the final solution. [Long silence.]
BM: The trial coming up in the International Court of Justice is already getting a lot of attention. Israeli officials seem, for the first time in this war, to be concerned about something. It is quite remarkable. It seems the South African team is going to be led by John Dugard, the professor of international law and a great expert. If they would call you to be a witness, what would you say about the genocide question? What is the truth here without propaganda? There is propaganda from all sides, but how do you view it?
GL: It’s hard because we are dealing here with a very specific definition [of genocide]. The fact that this is a massacre and a mass killing, and brutal and by itself a violation of many parts of the international law, [there is] no doubt about it. The fact that they are killing, indiscriminately, without any selection – they admit it. They kill anything which moves in Gaza, including hostages, Israeli hostages. The phenomena of genocide calls for an intention, and this is a little harder. Yes, the right-wingers, that’s their plan. And they are in the government, also.
I don’t see this as Netanyahu’s solution. But it’s irrelevant because he backs them, so he is part of it. I wouldn’t call it – right now – a genocide. It’s not a declared policy of Israel. It’s a declared policy of Israel to kill without any restraints [but] I don’t think the idea is to eliminate the population of Gaza. Not that they are so moral, but they know this is not practical.
But I think that if [the war] will go on, you will see how slowly, slowly more people will [use the term] genocide. Because I remember the years of talking about apartheid when it was almost illegitimate to mention it in Israel. Today saying apartheid is quite normal. [It is not a] problem to say that Israel is an apartheid state. [Similarly] maybe it [will be viewed as] genocide, especially if the [death toll] grows, and right now it is growing every day. Even if you look only at the figures of how many children have been killed: more than Ukraine; more than the Iraq War. So, I guess at a certain stage I would say [it is] genocide – but I don’t say it yet.
[See also: Pax Americana’s last gasp]