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How should we think about a mass exodus of Palestinians from Gaza?

Governments and non-state actors use mass migration as a tool of war.

- October 20, 2023

Hamas’ attack on Israel and the Israeli response have trapped civilians in Gaza in a humanitarian crisis. Last week, Israel issued a warning to those living in Gaza to head south, initially giving them only 24 hours. Although Israel later eased the deadline, the threat and the expected Israeli military incursion into Gaza have left the civilian population needing to go somewhere and with only one possible route out of Gaza: through Egypt, whose government has said it will not take any refugees

How should we think about this huge potential population movement? I asked Kelly M. Greenhill, author of the book Weapons of Mass Migration (a second, expanded and updated edition is forthcoming), to explain how mass migration can be a tool of war.

1. What makes mass migration a weapon? 

Mass migration is a common and tragic feature of war. Many people think of it as an unintended consequence of conflict, as people flee for their lives, from guns, tanks, and artillery on the ground and from bombs and missile strikes from the air. This conventional wisdom is correct, but incomplete. 

In many cases, mass migrations are the result of deliberate and calculated actions, designed, engineered, and executed to achieve strategic ends. Some of my research focuses on these intentionally generated and exploited migrations, which I refer to as strategically engineered migration, or SEM.

Strategically engineered migration is a broad phenomenon in which governments or non-state actors – organizations and/or individuals that are not affiliated with, directed by, or funded by any government – deliberately create, impede, or manipulate population inflows or outflows, or simply threaten to do so, to achieve political, economic and/or military aims. 

There are four main types of SEM, all of which are common features of international politics, in times of war as well as periods of peace. 

First, in coercive engineered migration, cross-border population movements are deliberately created, impeded, manipulated, or simply threatened in order to induce political, military, and/or economic concessions from a target state or states. As I detail in my book Weapons of Mass Migration, unlike in traditional military coercion, in coercive engineered migration (CEM), costs and punishments are inflicted through the threat and actual use of “people pressure” to achieve goals that often would be unattainable or too costly to pursue through military means. While the targets of this type of coercion are typically governments, the real victims of this kind of coercion are the displaced people who are used as bargaining chips or weapons. 

For instance, when former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi threatened to “turn Europe black” and “Muslim” by flooding the continent with migrants if not provided with billions of Euros and a variety of other concessions, he was engaged in this kind of coercion. (In the first decade of the 2000s, Gaddafi successfully used CEM on multiple occasions against the E.U. and against individual European countries before fatally overplaying his hand in early 2011, resulting in his ouster from power and death.) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has likewise repeatedly threatened to flood Europe with (mostly Syrian) refugees and other migrants over the last decade. One such coercive episode resulted in the much-maligned 2016 E.U.-Turkey deal.

Second, in dispossessive engineered migration, governments or non-state actors use forced migration to seize the territory or property of the displaced or to eliminate the displaced population as a political or economic threat to the dominance of the group engineering the migration. This class of events includes what is commonly known as “ethnic cleansing.” Disposessive engineered migration (DEM) was a common feature of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, following the collapse of Yugoslavia. It is also, according to allegations made by the United Kingdom, currently happening in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Third, in exportive engineered migration (EEM), the goal is to strengthen a government’s domestic political position by expelling dissidents or to discomfit, humiliate, or (in extremis) destabilize a foreign government or governments. This is most likely what President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime was up to on the border between Belarus and the E.U. (in Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia) in the fall and winter of 2021. Evidence suggests that, at a minimum, Lukashenko sought to embarrass the E.U., knowing its members were unlikely to welcome the migrants and asylum seekers he’d enticed to Belarus from Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and transferred to its borders with the E.U. Lukashenko likely also aimed to punish the E.U. for its criticism of his regime’s human rights record, for its unwillingness to declare him the legitimate winner of the country’s dodgy 2020 presidential election, and for imposing new sanctions on Belarus after the aforementioned disputed election.

Fourth, and finally, militarized engineered migration (MEM) is often used in the midst of armed conflict to gain military advantage against an adversary, via the disruption or destruction of an opponent’s command and control, logistics, or movement capabilities, or to enhance one’s own force structure. All parties to the Syrian civil war have used MEM (as well as DEM) to impede their adversaries and boost their own military strength to some degree, for instance. The Syrian government’s intense shelling of civilian targets that swiftly displaced another 70,000 in a rebel-held area of northwest Syria last week is just one recent probable example of this tool in action.

2. What type(s) of strategically engineered migration are we likely to see in the Israel-Hamas war? 

The ongoing war is a case where all four types of SEM may be employed – and it appears we’ve already observed some of them in practice.

An obvious potential example, given its clear, time-limited threat, is the Israeli declaration that those living in Gaza should retreat to the south within 24 hours. This kind of alleged “forcible transfer” is what outside observers such as the Norwegian Refugee Council have accused the Israelis of threatening in Gaza. If the Israelis intend to prevent Palestinian civilians from returning to their homes indefinitely, then this would be a case of dispossessive engineered migration, whether by intention or default. 

It is also reasonable to surmise that the Israelis are employing militarized engineered migration as part of their war-fighting strategy in Gaza. At a minimum, it seems likely that the Israelis are forcibly impelling people to leave northern Gaza in order to make their ground operations easier and to reduce the probability that civilians can be used as human shields by Hamas. 

There are at least two plausible militarized engineered migration strategies that might be operating. First, clogging the roads of the Gaza Strip with civilians could impede the movement and resupply of Hamas’ fighters. However, the existence of the vast network of tunnels under the Gaza Strip could make this technique less effective than it might otherwise be. 

Second, as suggested above, emptying the north of Gaza of civilian non-combatants in principle could make Israel’s ground offensive more straightforward and easier to execute, with far less collateral damage and civilian casualties. Indiscriminate killing of non-combatants is illegal and likely to be counter-productive both politically and militarily.

This is one reason why giving civilians ample time to seek refuge from the fighting is critical. It is common in military operations to operate under the assumption that, if civilians were offered the opportunity to leave an area and they refused to do so, then they are treated as de facto combatants. This is likely one reason why the Israelis extended the timeline for the civilian evacuation of those residing in Gaza beyond the initially proffered 24 hours. If civilians don’t have time or the capacity to evacuate in the time available, then declaring those still in place combatants is not actionable, and indiscriminate targeting may be treated as a war crime. 

In terms of coercive engineered migration, along with Israel itself, its neighbors might be the ones to watch. The most pressing example is Egypt, which shares the only non-Israeli border with Gaza and controls the Rafah crossing in the south. The Egyptian government, which has its own domestic challenges with the Muslim Brotherhood, has myriad reasons to be concerned about a possible influx of over a million Palestinians, some of whom might not be innocent civilians. But such resistance, whether for security, domestic political, social and/or economic reasons, is quite common in potential target countries. 

It is not yet clear if migration-driven coercion by Egypt or other actors in the region or farther afield will result from the Israel-Hamas war, but it certainly could. Egypt’s very public resistance to accepting those wishing to flee through the Rafah crossing could be interpreted as a precursor to Egypt demanding material concessions from interested parties in the region and/or much farther afield, in exchange for allowing those living in the Gaza Strip onto Egyptian soil on a short- or longer-term basis – i.e., a case of coercive engineered migration. 

If Egypt issues such demands, they might be as straightforward as requests for financial assistance to help cover the costs of hosting the displaced. They might comprise demands that third countries accept residents of Gaza, transferred from Egypt by ground or air, as a burden-sharing arrangement. Egypt already has many millions of refugees on its soil, so demands for assistance in this regard wouldn’t be surprising. 

Quite often, however, demands issued by those who use migration as a coercive instrument extend far beyond bids for burden-sharing assistance. Historically, those who have employed this tool, including within the Middle East, have had wide-ranging objectives and issued diverse demands, including the acquisition of military equipment, technologies, and technical assistance; material support with military operations and regime change; new or tightened alliance relationships; and target restraint from criticizing the coercers’ human rights records and other domestic practices. The list goes on. 

Israel, too, might resort to coercive engineered migration, threatening to forcibly transfer Palestinians (and not only those living in Gaza) to, for instance, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, if neighboring countries behave in ways perceived by Israel to be escalatory or likely to lead to conflict spread or spillover. Of course, Israel’s neighbors could retaliate or similarly use displaced groups already on their soil to counter-pressure Israel. 

Indeed, we have witnessed repeated cycles of threatened or actual coercively driven expulsions in the past. These include Egypt’s expulsion of British, French and Israeli passport holders in the midst of the Suez Crisis/Sinai Operation in 1956; Jordan’s privately-issued threats to the U.S. (and, by extension, Israel) immediately following the 1967 Six-Day War; and, more recently, (reportedly) in the early years of the Syrian civil war – by Bashar al-Assad’s regime against its neighbors, to deter their involvement in the conflict.

Lastly, in terms of exportive engineered migration, as of this writing I have not seen evidence to suggest this is currently happening in the Israel-Hamas war. But it is not difficult to imagine how we might see this variant of SEM deployed by the same actors who might (threaten to) use migration coercively. The real victims of SEM – the displaced themselves – may, like they have so often in the past, be exploited to embarrass, discomfit, or place potentially destabilizing strains on the infrastructure, economies, and political systems of recipient countries. For countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, already hosting millions of refugees, the prospect of providing refuge for potentially millions more, even if the displaced are considered kith and kin, cannot be an attractive prospect.

3. What chance does diplomacy or action by international organizations have to alleviate the situation? 

This will be an especially difficult situation to mitigate, including but not limited to the human toll of migration.

For reasons articulated above, it’s not especially unusual for potential host countries to be reluctant to accept refugees. However, it is somewhat unusual for cases to so clearly lend themselves to all four types of strategic engineered migration simultaneously (that is, coercive, militarized, dispossessive, and exportive). The Israel-Gaza case is also unusual in that it is rooted in a long, fraught, and complicated history of strategically engineered migrations.

In theory, wealthy countries and properly funded international institutions and humanitarian organizations could help. They can provide direct financial and logistical assistance to help care for innocent civilians, displaced whether intentionally or inadvertently. They can offer indirect assistance to entities on the frontlines caring for non-combatants and, if and where relevant, to countries hosting and caring for the displaced. The Biden administration, for instance, announced on Wednesday that it will provide $100 million in aid to those residing in Gaza and, on Thursday, that it had reached a deal with Egypt that would permit trucks laden with humanitarian aid through the Rafah border crossing to provide desperately needed assistance to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. 

Wealthy and militarily capable countries can also offer attractive positive inducements and issue credible threats to parties to the conflict (and relevant third-party observers who may be allied with one side or the other) to help keep this already terribly costly conflict limited and reduce the likelihood of inadvertent escalation, both on the battlefield and in the realm of SEM. 

Over the last week, we have witnessed promises of significant infusions of aid to allies, such as the U.S. promise to provide an “unprecedented aid package” to Israel and additional batteries to fortify its Iron Dome. The U.S. has also deployed additional carrier strike groups to the region to act as a deterrent to conflict spread or spillover. We have also observed rhetorical brinkmanship, designed to forestall potential escalation, between supporters (such as the U.S.) and adversaries (such as Iran) of Israel.

Finally, at least in principle, powerful states and international organizations can also engage in and facilitate diplomacy and share critical information and valuable intelligence. The U.N. can offer its “good offices” and serve as an impartial mediator. 

But such efforts are difficult under the best of circumstances, and would be especially arduous in this case. One challenge is the long, shared history of violent enmity and protracted conflict between the combatants, characterized by successive waves of refugees and mass displacement. A second is the nature of the actors involved – one of which, Hamas, is a non-state group that regularly uses terrorist tactics and just launched a devastating attack that included massacres of civilians and seizure of hostages. A third is Israel’s understandable reluctance to engage with Hamas in light of recent events. All of this has led to epic levels of distrust on both sides.

And there is the grim reality hanging over all of this: the lack of a long-term, sustainable solution that takes into account both Israel’s right to exist and Palestinians’ desire for a state of their own. For all of these reasons, I am not especially optimistic about the prospects for a short-term diplomatic solution to help the population in Gaza.