As Israel justifiably seeks to crush Hamas in the aftermath of the terrorist group’s horrific attack on October 7, Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip are caught in the crossfire. Most of the blame for this rests with Hamas itself, as their fighters use the civilian population as human shields, and do not wear identifying uniforms (the latter is one of Hamas’s many violations of the laws and customs of war). But, regardless of whose fault it is, innocent civilians will continue to suffer and die as the conflict intensifies.
If given the opportunity, many Gaza civilians would likely flee abroad to escape the fighting, as have numerous civilians caught up in other recent wars, such as those in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Letting them do so is both a moral imperative, and a way to help Israel defeat Hamas.
But the Egyptian government and other Arab states are blocking refugees from fleeing Gaza. Even as they shed crocodile tears for the plight of Palestinians, they refuse to let them leave a dangerous war zone. And to the extent they—and Western backers of the Palestinian cause—really believe the oft-heard claim that Gaza is an “open air prison,” there is a strong moral imperative to let the unjustly confined “prisoners” leave, if they want to. Even aside from the current war, many might prefer not to live in poverty and oppression under Hamas’s brutal medieval theocracy.
Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of US military assistance and other foreign aid. That funding can be used as leverage to force the authoritarian regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi to reverse its cruel policy.
There is an obvious moral case for doing so. Many innocent civilians are threatened with death or injury, and in addition are ruled by a deeply oppressive regime. Letting those who want to escape is a way to help them escape injustice. Blocking them from doing so by force (as Egypt has been doing) is a grave wrong.
The most obvious response to the moral case for opening the door to Gaza Palestinian refugees is the idea that they don’t deserve refuge because they bear responsibility for Hamas and its depredations. If they didn’t support Hamas, there would be no terrorism, and no war.
But, just as most ordinary Russians are not responsible for the evils of Vladimir Putin’s regime and its war on Ukraine, so most ordinary Gazans aren’t responsible for Hamas. Like Putin’s Russia, Gaza under Hamas is an authoritarian regime that brutally represses dissent.
It is true that Hamas won a plurality in a legislative election in 2006. But it then seized executive power by force, and has not held any even remotely free elections since. A large majority of current Gaza Palestinians never had a meaningful chance to influence Hamas’s policies, much less remove it from power. Almost half of Gaza’s population consists of children under the age of 18; many others were too young to participate in the 2006 election. You don’t have to be a political theorist to recognize that children are not morally responsible for the evil policies of the government that rules over them.
It is true that some significant percentage of adult Gazans do support Hamas, its awful ideology, and its terrorism. But many others do not. A July 2023 poll conducted by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 62% of Gaza Palestinians wanted to maintain a ceasefire with Israel, 50% agreed that “Hamas should stop calling for Israel’s destruction, and instead accept a permanent two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.” A large majority also said they preferred Palestinian Authority rule to Hamas.
Polls conducted in areas ruled by repressive regimes should be viewed with caution. But, if anything, this one may underestimate the true extent of opposition to Hamas policies. Some respondents might have been afraid to express views inimical to Gaza’s rulers, for fear the latter would find out about it and punish them. Even if the pollster was completely independent (as this one was) and would keep answers confidential, wary respondents might not believe such assurances or at least not be willing to take the risk they might false.
Even some of those who do not support Hamas may hold abhorrent views on other issues, including anti-Semitic sentiments of a kind all too common in the Arab world. But people should not be forcibly condemned to tyranny and death in war merely because they may have some awful views—especially if they have them in large part because of ubiquitous, difficult-to-avoid indoctrination. And, even more obviously, such things should not be held against the large part of the population that consists of children.
Arab rulers who refuse to take Gaza refugees claim they do so because it would undermine the cause of Palestinian statehood, and the Israelis might not allow them to return to Gaza. In reality, Israel has little interest in annexing Gaza or settling Israel Jews there. Whatever can be said of the West Bank, even most Israeli right-wingers do not want to keep Gaza. For that reason, Israel also has little reason to keep refugees from returning. This line of argument also ignores the fact that the Palestinian leadership could have long since had a state including all of Gaza and nearly all of the West Bank if they had accepted the offers extended to them by Israel and the US in 2000, 2001, and 2008.
In addition, it is wrong to forcibly compel people—including large numbers of children—to endure war and repression merely to support a nationalistic project. If this is what the Palestinian “cause” requires, it’s a strong indication that cause is at odds with the rights and interests of actual Palestinians. Those who would prefer to seek a better life elsewhere should be allowed to do so.
In other contexts, hardly anyone says that refugees should be barred from fleeing war and oppression in order to bolster the cause of their nation. While Vladimir Putin’s efforts to conquer Ukraine and annex large parts of it are illegal and unjust, no one claims that Ukrainian refugees must therefore be blocked from fleeing in order to oppose Russia’s claims. It would be absurd to contend that helping Ukrainians flee Russian invasion and oppression is somehow anti-Ukrainian by making it easier for Putin to hold onto the regions he claims, and few if any observers advance such arguments. Indeed, it would be a grave wrong to prevent Ukrainians from fleeing, which is one of the reasons why the US, Canada, and European nations have opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.
Western nations would also do well to open their doors to Gaza refugees, in addition to pressuring Arab states on this point. Refugees willing to go there would surely have greater freedom and opportunity in the West than in poor and authoritarian Arab states.
The standard argument against this – deployed by GOP politicians in the US – is that Palestinian refugees pose a security threat. But any such danger is overblown. Cato Institute immigration policy expert Alex Nowrasteh has compiled a database of terrorism incidents involving immigrants to the US from 1975 to 2022. During that entire period, Palestinian migrants killed a total of three people in terrorist attacks on US soil. While it’s difficult to make precisely accurate rate calculations with such a small number, that amounts to a per-migrant risk not much greater than that posed by native-born Americans. Another way of looking at this issue is that the average American faces a vastly greater annual risk of being killed by a lightning strike than by a Palestinian immigrant terrorist (about 28 Americans are killed by lighting annually). And that would still be true even if the danger from the latter were several times greater than it is now. And, of course, the period in question includes many confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians that one might expect to incite violence by would-be terrorists.
Moreover, Hamas has instructed Palestinians to stay put. Those who defy Hamas’ orders are likely to be disproportionately those least supportive of its awful ideology, and least likely to engage in acts of terrorism inspired by it.
In addition to the moral imperative, there is also a strategic rationale for letting Palestinians who wish to flee Gaza do so. Reducing the number of civilians present during the fighting will also reduce Hamas’s opportunities to use them as human shields. That factor is likely one of the reasons why Hamas wants them to stay, and has installed roadblocks to impede flight (they also generally don’t want to reduce the number of people under their control).
Letting refugees flee would save innocent lives, protect human rights, and help Israel defeat Hamas faster. It’s a win-win for anyone who support human rights and wants to see Hamas defeated.