'Gaza Nakba 2023' (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

December 18, 2023   7 mins

We are cursed to live in a time of great historical significance: when future historians look back at 2023, the distinguishing feature of this year will likely be the recurrence of ethnic cleansing on a vast scale. In just the past few months, Pakistan has deported nearly half a million Afghan migrants, while Azerbaijan has forced 120,000 Armenians — the statelet’s entire population — from newly-conquered Karabakh, both to broad international indifference. As the UNHCR has warned, the forced expulsion — that is, the ethnic cleansing — of Gaza’s Palestinian population is now the most likely outcome of the current war. 

With no prospect of Palestinians and Israelis living together peaceably, anything short of absolute military victory unacceptable to both the Israeli government and its voters, but no meaningful plan for who will rule the uninhabitable ruins of post-war Gaza, the only realistic solution to the Palestinian problem, for Israel, is the total removal of the Palestinians. As Israel’s former Interior Minister has declared: “We need to take advantage of the destruction to tell the countries that each of them should take a quota, it can be 20,000 or 50,000. We need all two million to leave. That’s the solution for Gaza.”

Israeli officials have not been shy in promoting this outcome to a war, according to the President Isaac Herzog, for which “an entire nation
 is responsible”. Israel’s agriculture minister Avi Dichter has asserted that “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” adding for emphasis that the result of the war will be “Gaza Nakba 2023. That’s how it’ll end.” Israel’s Intelligence Ministry has published a “concept paper” proposing the expulsion of Gaza’s entire population to the Sinai desert, and Israeli diplomats have been trying to win international support for this idea. According to the Israeli press, Israeli officials have sought American backing for a different plan to distribute Gaza’s population between Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Yemen, tying American aid to these countries’ willingness to accept the refugees. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, two Israeli lawmakers have instead urged Western countries — particularly Europe — to host Gaza’s population, asserting that: “The international community has a moral imperative—and an opportunity—to demonstrate compassion [and] help the people of Gaza move toward a more prosperous future.” The outcome for Gaza’s Palestinians does not appear to be in doubt: what remains to be haggled over is their final location.

The only actor that can prevent the ethnic cleansing of Gaza is the United States, and for domestic political reasons it is disinclined to do so. While the Biden administration declares it does not support “any forced relocation of Palestinians outside of the Gaza Strip”, it is not taking any action to prevent it. If the expulsion of Gaza’s 2.3 million population comes to pass, the result will be the most significant instance of ethnic cleansing in a generation, which will define Biden’s presidency for future historians. Yet outrage over such events is selective. It is not entirely true, as some Middle Eastern commentators claim, that Western complicity in the looming ethnic cleansing of Gaza highlights a lesser interest in Arab or Muslim lives: the Armenian case highlights that eastern Christians also barely flicker on the world’s moral radar. 

This week’s awarding of the right to host next year’s COP29 climate conference to Azerbaijan, just a few months after its ethnic cleansing of Karabakh, reminds us that the supposed international taboo on the practice does not, in reality, exist. When ethnic cleansing is permissible, and when it is a war crime, depends, it seems, on who is doing it, and to whom. Azerbaijan is oil-rich, useful to Europe, and able to buy favourable Western coverage; Armenia is poor, weak and friendless in the world. Similarly, the extinction of much of the Christian population of the Middle East as a result of the chaos following the Iraq War won very little international attention or sympathy: communities which survived in their ancient homelands from Late Antiquity, riding out the passage of Arab, Mamluk, Ottoman and European imperial rule, did not survive the American empire.

Yet while the moral revulsion such events excite is the natural and humane reaction, ethnic cleansing is less rare an event than the crusading military response to its Nineties occurrence in the Balkans may make us think. For the sociologist Michael Mann, ethnic cleansing is the natural consequence of modernity, “the dark side of democracy”. As the Northern Irish writer Bruce Clark observed in his excellent book Twice A Stranger on the euphemistically termed “population exchanges” between Greece and Turkey exactly a century ago, “Whether we like it or not, those of us who live in Europe or in places influenced by European ideas remain the children of Lausanne,” the 1923 peace treaty “which decreed a massive, forced population movement between Turkey and Greece”. One and a quarter million Greek Orthodox Christians were removed from Anatolia, and nearly 400,000 Muslims from Greece, in a process overseen by the Norwegian diplomat Fridtjof Nansen leading a branch of the League of the Nations which would later — perhaps ironically — evolve into today’s UNHCR. 

It was a cruel process, wrenching peoples from ancestral homelands in which they had lived for centuries, even millennia— and by the end of it half a million people were unaccounted for, presumably dead. Yet it was viewed as a great diplomatic triumph of the age, perhaps with good reason: without meaningful minorities on each side of each others’ borders to stoke tensions, Greece and Turkey have not fought a war in a century. Indeed, as late as 1993, the Realist IR scholar John Mearsheimer could propose a “Balkan Population Exchange commission” for the former Yugoslavia explicitly modelled on the 1923 precedent, asserting that “populations would have to be moved in order to create homogeneous states” and “the international community should oversee and subsidize this population exchange”. For the younger Mearsheimer, ethnic cleansing was the only viable solution to Yugoslavia’s bloody and overlapping ethnic map: “Transfer is a fact. The only question is whether it will be organized, as envisioned by partition, or left to the murderous methods of the ethnic cleansers.” Thirty years later, however, Mearsheimer condemns Israel’s planned expulsions from Gaza outright.

There is a dark irony here: the forced expulsion of peoples is an affront to liberal European values, yet it is rarely acknowledged that our modern, hitherto peaceful and prosperous Europe is built on the foundation of ethnic cleansing. Perhaps the ramifications of such a truth are too stark to bear, yet it is nevertheless the case that the peaceable post-1945 order depended on mass expulsions for its stability. Using the 1923 exchange as their explicit model, the victorious allies oversaw the forced removal of 30 million people from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe towards newly homogeneous ethnic homelands they had never seen. At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences, Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union settled upon the expulsion of 12 million Germans, more than 2 million Poles and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Hungarians and Finns from their ancestral homes. 

As Churchill declared in Parliament in 1944, “expulsion is the method that, so far as we have been able to see, will be the most satisfactory and lasting. There will be no mixture of populations to cause endless trouble, as has been in the case of Alsace-Lorraine. A clean sweep will be made.” Only two years later, once the Cold War had begun and the Soviet Union and its vassal Poland become a rival, did Churchill fulminate against the “enormous and wrongful inroads upon Germany, and mass expulsions of millions of Germans on a scale grievous and undreamed of” by “the Russian-dominated Polish Government”. In ethnic cleansing, as in so many other things, political context is the final arbiter of morality.

But as a result, Germany has never since unsettled Europe with revanchist dreams; both Poland and Western Ukraine became, for the first time in their histories, ethnically homogenous entities. As the Ukrainian-Canadian historian Orest Subtelny has observed, the forced separation of Poles and Ukrainians, once locked in bitter ethnic conflict against each other, has led to today’s amicable relationship: “It seems that the segregation of the two peoples was a necessary precondition for the development of a mutually beneficial relationship between them. Apparently the old adage that ‘good fences make for good neighbors’ has been proven true once more.” That we have forgotten the vast scale of the forced expulsions which established Europe’s peaceful post-war order is, in a strange way, a testament to their success. 

Yet what made the mass expulsions following the First and Second World Wars broadly successful was that those expelled at least had ethnic homelands to receive them. In Greece and Turkey, the refugees fully adopted the ethnic nationalism of their new countries, in Greece providing the bedrock of later republican sympathies, and in Turkey the core support for both secular Kemalist nationalism and occasional bouts of military rule. In the newly-homogenous Poland and Ukraine, refugees shorn of their previous local roots and at times ambiguous ethnic identities fully adopted in recompense a self-identification with their new nation-states which has helped define these countries’ modern politics. The 120,000 Karabakh refugees will likely become a political bloc in tiny Armenia, affecting the country’s future political order in ways yet hard to discern. 

Israelis are themselves, for the most part, the product of 20th-century ethnic cleansings, in the Middle East as well as Europe: indeed the descendants of Middle Eastern Jews, like the Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, are the country’s most radical voices on the Palestinian Question. But the Palestinians, like the ethnic French narrator of Houellebecq’s Submission, have no Israel to go to. Unlike the 20th century displaced of Eastern and south-eastern Europe, there is no Palestinian state waiting to absorb them. Indeed, for Gaza’s population, the vast majority of whom descend from refugees from what is today Israel, Gaza was their place of refuge, and the 1948 Nakba the foundational event in their sense of Palestinian nationhood. For all that ethnic cleansing punctuates modern history, there is no precedent for such a process of double displacement, and the political consequences can not at this stage be determined. We may assume they will not be good, and an analogue to Europe’s post-war neighbourly relations will not be found. 

Egypt’s disinclination to host two million Gazan refugees is not merely a matter of solidarity, but also self-preservation: flows of embittered Palestinian refugees helped destabilise both Lebanon, where their presence set off the country’s bloody ethnic civil war, and Jordan, where they make up the demographic majority. It is doubtful too, given the recent tenor of its politics, that Europe will be eager to receive them, no matter how humanitarian the language with which Israeli officials couch their planned expulsion. Rendered stateless, driven from their homes and brutalised by war, Gaza’s refugees remain unwanted by the world, perhaps destined to become, as the Jews once were, a diaspora people forever at the mercy of suspicious hosts.

A terrible injustice for the Palestinians, their ethnic cleansing may yet provide Israel with a measure of security, even as it erodes the American sympathy on which the country’s existence depends. The broader question, perhaps, is whether or not the looming extinction of Palestinian life in Gaza, like the expulsion of Karabakh’s Armenians, heralds the beginning of a new era of ethnic cleansing, or merely the settling of the West’s unfinished accounts. Like the movements which bloodily reshaped Central Europe, Israel’s very existence is after all a product of the same nationalist intellectual ferment of fin-de-siùcle Vienna. In 1923, while acknowledging its necessity, the British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon called the Greco-Turkish population exchange “a thoroughly bad and vicious [idea] for which the world would pay a heavy penalty for a hundred years to come”. Exactly a century later, Gaza’s Palestinians look destined to become the final victims of Europe’s long and painful 20th century.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.