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Relocation of Palestinians cannot be a solution to Gaza crisis, US officials say

A displaced Palestinian man who fled his home due to Israeli airstrikes reacts Jan. 5, 2024, as he takes shelter in a tent camp in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas. (OSV News photo/Saleh Salem, Reuters)

(OSV News) — As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has insisted that Palestinians must not be pressured into leaving Gaza and must be allowed to return to their homes once conditions allow, Christians in the Holy Land worry the Israeli statements may threaten other small communities in the Holy Land, including theirs.

Blinken condemned statements by some Israeli ministers who called for the resettlement of Palestinians elsewhere.

Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for Palestinians to leave Gaza and make way for Israelis who could “make the desert bloom.”

Meanwhile, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, another far-right politician, issued a call Jan. 1 “to encourage the migration of Gaza residents” as a “solution” to the crisis.

The comments have shone a light on what many observers have described as the most extremist government in the 75-year history of the modern state of Israel. It also will heighten concern in the Holy Land’s dwindling Christian community that — at least certain elements within the government — are pursuing a radical agenda to diminish the Christian presence in Jerusalem’s Old City, site of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The official line from the Israeli government is that Palestinians in Gaza will eventually be able to return to their homes, though it has yet to outline how or when this will be possible.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have a long history of rhetoric hostile toward Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza — known in international law as the occupied territories — as well as Arab citizens of Israel, who make up around 20% of the population. However, both men were fringe figures in Israeli politics until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited them to join his Cabinet in return for supporting him after an inconclusive election in 2022.

Ben-Gvir, who is the minister with responsibility for policing, attracted criticism last year after a number of Jewish extremists were arrested for spitting at Christian pilgrims and he questioned whether the arrests were justified. Spitting at Christians, he had said before being appointed a minister, is “an ancient Jewish custom.”

Earlier this year, the most influential Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who is the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, warned that the region’s 2,000-year-old Christian community is coming under increased pressure, a phenomenon he linked directly to this government.

“The frequency of these attacks, the aggressions, has become something new,” Cardinal Pizzaballa told The Associated Press.

“These people (extremists) feel they are protected … that the cultural and political atmosphere now can justify, or tolerate, actions against Christians,” he said.

Israel has said it maintains the status quo of holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, where some of the holiest sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims sit virtually side by side, the patriarch and other church leaders have voiced growing alarm.

“What we are seeing is that what we call the status quo, the balance between the different communities — Jews, Muslims, Christians — is not respected anymore,” Cardinal Pizzaballa said.

“That aspect is problematic for me, that they consider Christians as guests. We are not guests. We are part of the identity of the city,” the patriarch added.

The cardinal’s high profile gives him the freedom to criticize the current government, and his offer of himself in return for the Israeli hostages seized in the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks has won him admiration among ordinary Israelis, many of whom know little or nothing about the 2% of citizens who are Christians.

Others do not feel that freedom, and one elderly Christian resident of Jerusalem told OSV News recently, under condition of anonymity, that he was “surprised by nothing from this new government.”

“They are the worst in Israel’s history, and they do not want us (Arabs) here in Jerusalem or in any part of the Holy Land,” he said.

The same man, a Palestinian with an Israeli ID, said he was concerned that any move to stop the people of Gaza returning home “would inevitably lead to another intifada” or uprising in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The last such uprising between 2000-2005 saw more than 4,000 Israelis and Palestinians killed in a wave of violence.

Meanwhile, the Congo has denied reports that it is in talks with Israel about resettling residents of the Gaza Strip in the Central African nation.

There has “never been any form of negotiation, discussion or initiative” between Kinshasa and Israel about the reception of Palestinian migrants on Congolese soil, Congolese government spokesperson Patrick Muyaya said in a statement.

A senior Israeli official briefing reporters also denied the report that appeared in the Zman news website.

“It’s a baseless illusion in my opinion. No country will absorb 2 million people, or 1 million, or 100,000, or 5,000. I don’t know where that idea came from,” he said.

“It could be between Congo and Gazans, but Israel is not conducting any talks with any country on this issue,” the unnamed official quoted in The Times of Israel continued.

There are currently fewer than a thousand Christians in Gaza, mostly Catholics and Greek Orthodox.

Michael Kelly writes for OSV News from Dublin.

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