Why Are Conservatives Supporting Israel’s Strategy When It Would Create Millions More Refugees?

They don't understand that foreign policy has consequences.

by Aaron Bastani

24 October 2023

Displaced Palestinian children at a UN-run tent camp in southern Gaza
Displaced Palestinian children at a UN-run tent camp in southern Gaza, October 2023. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Shortly after the 7 October Hamas attacks, Israel urged 1.1m Palestinians to evacuate northern Gaza. Their reasoning was simple: by removing civilians from the territory, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) could undertake a ground invasion – alongside bombing campaigns and continuing to starve Gaza of water, energy and food. Taken together, such measures would destroy Hamas, they claimed. 

While the media has accepted this strategy as credible, the likelihood of success remains unclear. Hamas is evidently able to store thousands of missiles in its hidden network of underground tunnels. So why shouldn’t the same hold true for water, energy and food? And even if Israel was able to clear the tunnels in northern Gaza, similar networks would persist in the south. After all, between 2007 and 2013 more than 1500 tunnels are believed to have traversed the border between Gaza and Egypt. The extent and effectiveness of these subterranean labyrinths is hard to overstate. 

In other words, dismantling Hamas would require not only a ground invasion of northern Gaza, but the south as well. Rather than displacing over 1m people, as is presently Israel’s stated objective, 2.4m Palestinians would be forced to move. 

But where would these people go? The answer appears to be Egypt, with Israel heavily suggesting Gazans use the Rafah crossing to enter the neighbouring state. Indeed the IDF’s international media spokesman, Lt-Col Richard Hecht, explicitly advised Palestinians to leave for Egypt last week, saying how the Rafah crossing was still open and “anyone who can get out, I would advise them to get out.” The IDF later clarified this was not its official position. 

Egypt is, for obvious reasons, resistant to this idea – with the crossing closed for all but humanitarian aid since 2021. One reason for this is that accepting refugees might provide cover for what is essentially ethnic cleansing. Another is that Egypt’s economy is itself in the mire – with inflation running at 38% last month. Finally, there is the fact that the Egyptian government suspects any refugee camps would – as in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – become permanent. “Displacing Palestinians from the Gaza Strip to Sinai,” president Mohammed El Sisi recently declared, “means transferring the conflict and the killings from Gaza to Sinai, where Sinai becomes a base for launching operations against Israel.”

“In this case” he went on to add, “Israel would have the right to defend itself, so it would direct its strikes on to Egyptian territory.” Money, security, ethical concerns, or all of the above – take your pick as to why Egypt refuses to offer sanctuary.

In this context, recent comments, allegedly made by a ‘senior Egyptian official’ to a European counterpart, are unsurprising. “You want us to take one million people?” the official reportedly said. “Well, I am going to send them to Europe. You care about human rights so much – you take them.” In other words, the necessary conditions to destroy Hamas – Israel’s stated objective – could mean more than a million refugees going to Egypt, and later crossing the Mediterranean. 

Which begs a simple question. Why is the right, from the British government to the tabloid press and the likes of Douglas Murray, so supportive of such a strategy? After all, these same people claim to want to reduce asylum claims to the UK. So why cheer on the potential displacement of millions of people in Europe’s near abroad? Isn’t this precisely the sort of event they should be eager to avoid?

The explanation is simple. Such figures either don’t understand, or believe in, the causal relationship between foreign policy choices and displaced people. That might seem surprising given the obvious link between the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and the subsequent refugee crisis of 2015. Then, 1.3m people requested asylum in Europe – the most in a single year since World War II. Almost all of them entered Europe via Libya.

And yet it does make sense once you understand that context doesn’t matter to many on the right. They believe that billions want to come to Europe – regardless of the actions of our own governments. Why? Because their understanding of the issue hinges around a quasi-spiritual critique of Western decline, and a conspiratorial view of demographic change. Here economic under-development, and rigged global trade policies, are irrelevant – as is starting wars and occupying countries, arming allies to do the same, or economic sanctions. Iraqis now come to Europe not because the US and UK took the country to the brink of becoming a failed state (Murray supported the Iraq War), but because of Britain’s benefits system. Meanwhile, immigration from Iran has nothing to do with decades of the most onerous sanctions in history – but is presumably because of the superior climate. Elsewhere Syria’s interminable civil war is maintained by the United States, with the endgame being that it simply grinds on. But apparently this has nothing to do with 6.8m Syrians leaving the country – nor should we think about a peace settlement enabling those who wish to return to do so. Indeed it is only with Ukraine that the relationship between war, displacement and the legitimacy of refugees entering western Europe, is accepted. Quite why it is the exception is an interesting question. 

This should serve to undermine the credibility of the right when it comes to undocumented migration. Palestinians don’t want to come to Europe, or go to Egypt. They want a sovereign and safe homeland. And yet one suspects that the likes of Murray and Melanie Phillips won’t be arguing for that any time soon. Instead, they’ll continue to cheer on a process which could well mean more people fleeing to Europe – something they claim to care about.

But perhaps that is the point. Because a serious conversation about the professed grievances of such people might lead to conclusions the right dislikes. Namely, that rather than destabilising countries, western foreign policy should be based on cooperation, compromise, fair development and allowing others to plot their own course. We don’t know what’s best for them and we are certainly not superior to them.

Finally, a foreign policy which aims to reduce displacement and minimise conflict would also mean fewer people in central and west Asia suffer. If I’m entirely honest, I suspect such suffering is something a fair few people in the political and media establishment enjoy – precisely because it permits them to feel superior. 

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.

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