Biden is right to grant temporary refuge to Palestinian migrants already in the United States, but he should go further

A lone person walks on the rubble following the war in Israel and PalestineA lone person walks on the rubble following the war in Israel and Palestine
Rubble in Gaza. October 2023. (Apaimages/SIPA/Newscom)

Yesterday, the Biden administration granted temporary refuge to Palestinian migrants currently in the United States who might otherwise be subject to deportation. Granting Deferred Enforced Departure Status (known as DED) allows approximately 6,000 Palestinians to remain in the United States for an additional 18 months, and the Department of Homeland Security will also allow these individuals to work in the United States during that period.

The justification for this measure is obvious. As the White House statement on the topic states, due to the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, “humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territories, and especially in Gaza, have significantly worsened.” This certainly understates the point: thousands of people have been killed and much of Gaza has been razed to the ground. Violence in the West Bank is less widespread, but still significant. Furthermore, the Palestinians of Gaza are subject to the brutal tyranny of Hamas, which is terrible, even apart from the war.

In my opinion, the main blame for this situation falls on Hamas for using Gaza as a base for its horrific terrorist attacks, and then using the civilian population as human shields. But regardless of blame, it would be wrong to force Palestinian migrants (or anyone else) to return to a deadly war zone – or to live under a system of quasi-medieval oppression.

There is, however, a contradiction in the Biden administration’s position on this point. The same reasoning that justifies granting DED status to Palestinians currently in the United States also justifies opening the door to civilians trying to flee Gaza. After all, they too suffer from the “deterioration” of “humanitarian conditions”. Yet both Western and Arab nations have largely refused entry to Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence.

In a previous post, I explained why opening the doors to Gaza’s refugees is the right thing to do on both moral and strategic levels: It can save thousands of people from unnecessary suffering and death, while making it easier for Israel to defeat Hamas. I also addressed various possible counterarguments, such as the claim that Palestinians in Gaza are collectively responsible for Hamas’ atrocities, and the argument that they pose a security risk (the risk is actually extremely small).

Since I wrote my piece, related arguments have been made by my co-blogger and George Mason University colleague Eugene Kontorovich, in a January 21 article Wall Street Journal one D:

Gaza is unique among modern war zones. Despite being at the center of a conflict fought in densely populated urban areas, it has not produced waves of refugees leaving for neutral countries. This was deliberate, the result of Hamas and Egypt policies tacitly supported by the United States….

Fleeing a war zone and seeking asylum in a neutral country is a human right enshrined in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. If civilians had not been allowed to flee past conflicts, the death toll would have been even higher .

Yet, three months after October 7, fewer than 1,000 people – both foreign citizens and injured people – were allowed by Egypt and Hamas to leave Gaza. In Israel this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected the possibility of Israel helping Gazans who wish to flee the conflict to do so. But he also complained that the toll of the war on Gaza’s civilians was “too high” and echoed previous calls for Israel to “do more” to reduce the collateral damage caused by Hamas hiding behind its population ….

Why would anyone other than Hamas – especially the United States – support the blockade of Gazans as North Korea does? Since 1948, Arab states and the United Nations have refused to treat Palestinians as ordinary refugees, keeping them in a unique intergenerational limbo to provide a reservoir of resentment against Israel. The United States has not opposed the flight of refugees into other conflicts. The Biden administration continues to treat Gazans not as people, but as land-bound serfs.

Letting Gazans leave would not only reduce human suffering; it would provide a test and incentive for post-war governance. Refugees often return to their home countries when governance stabilizes after a conflict. For this to happen, the new civil administration should make it a place where Gazans want to live, not where they are prevented from leaving.

Eugene and I differ on many issues. But I think he’s absolutely right here. For a combination of moral, legal and practical reasons, it is wrong to trap Palestinian refugees in Gaza as if they were servants of Hamas. Eugene is also right to suggest that the United States use its large-scale aid to Egypt as leverage to pressure the Egyptian government to let go of the Gaza refugees (a policy I supported in my October article). I’m not sure Eugene would take the further step of urging the United States and other Western nations (as well as Egypt) to accept Gaza refugees. But this is also justified for the reasons I outlined in my previous post.

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