Israeli minister calls for voluntary emigration of Gazans

Palestinians fleeing north Gaza move southward, in the central Gaza Strip
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A senior far-right member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government said on Tuesday Gaza could not survive as an independent entity and it would be better for Palestinians there to leave for other countries.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads one of the religious nationalist parties in Netanyahu's coalition, said he supported a call by two members of the Israeli parliament who wrote in a Wall Street Journal editorial that Western countries should accept Gazan families who expressed a desire to relocate.

The comments underscore fears in much of the Arab world that Israel wants to drive Palestinians out of land where they want to build a future state, repeating the mass dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948.

"I welcome the initiative of the voluntary emigration of Gaza Arabs to countries around the world," Smotrich said in a statement. "This is the right humanitarian solution for the residents of Gaza and the entire region after 75 years of refugees, poverty and danger."

He said an area as small as the Gaza Strip without natural resources could not survive alone, and added: "The State of Israel will no longer be able to accept the existence of an independent entity in Gaza".

Smotrich spoke during Israel's invasion of the Gaza Strip, a blockaded coastal enclave ruled by the Islamist movement Hamas that is home to some 2.3 million people, most of them refugees after earlier wars.

Palestinians and leaders of Arab countries have accused Israel of seeking a new "Nakba" (catastrophe), the name given to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the wake of the 1948 war that accompanied the founding of the state of Israel.

Most ended up in neighbouring Arab states, and Arab leaders have said any latter-day move to displace Palestinians would be unacceptable.

Israel launched the Gaza operation in retaliation for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas gunmen who burst out of the enclave and stormed across a string of communities in southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking around 240 as hostages back into Gaza, according to Israeli official figures. Israeli leaders have vowed to destroy Hamas and rescue the hostages.

More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed during the weeks-long Israeli bombardment of Gaza, according to Palestinian health authorities, and whole stretches of the enclave have been levelled or turned to rubble.

The Israeli military has told residents of northern Gaza to leave their homes and head to the southern end of the Strip, where it said they would be safer, and said they would be able to return once the situation is stabilised.

Israel withdrew its military and settlers from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, and Netanyahu has said it does not intend to maintain a permanent presence again, but that Israel would maintain security control for an indefinite period.

However there has been little clarity about Israel's longer term intentions, and countries including the United States have said that Gaza should be governed by Palestinians.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Mark Heinrich)