A secret Israeli plan to re-settle 60,000 Palestinians living in Gaza to Paraguay has been discovered in a state archive of government papers.
Eran Mor-Cicurel, a senior reporter with KAN (IPBC) — Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation — said he discovered the lost chapter of Israeli history in “a pile of old documents” while trawling through declassified cabinet minutes from 1969.
” The extent, the numbers and the methodology was quite amazing, through the eyes of someone who lives in the 21st century,” he told Business Insider.
A map of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
Business Insider/Google Maps
In 1967, Israel captured Gaza, an enclave beside the Mediterranean on its southern border, from Egypt in the Six-Day War. It also occupied Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, the Golan Heights that had been part of Syria, and the West Bank, controlled by Jordan.
Today, Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US government. The area is the constant conflict flashpoint between Israel and the Palestinians.
For Mor-Cicurel, in 1969, the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, had an inkling of the conflicts that would follow. However, at the time, relations between Israel and Gazans could not have been more different than the enmity that exists today.
“The Palestinian population (in Gaza) was very peaceful at the time. Israel was a welcome occupier. Israelis were going to Gaza and shopping, sitting on the beach, and talking about how people were friendly. Relations were basically very good at the beginning,” he said.
But the Paraguay transfer plan emerged because, “the Israel government identified the problem in advance,” he said.
“After the ’67 war, the Gazan economy was disconnected from the Egyptian economy. There was very high unemployment. In Golda Meir’s view, it was a humanistic attempt to solve a difficult problem — it seemed reasonable.”
One idea that never got off the ground, Mor-Cicurel said, was to establish agricultural settlements in northern Sinai for 50,000 Palestinians. But in reality, there was no local solution, so Israel’s leaders, advised by its spy agency, Mossad, began to look further afield.
“Paraguay was basically a dictatorship. You had a strongman there who you could reach an agreement with,” said Mor-Cicurel.
Paraguay was ruled by Alfredo Stroessner, who took power in a military coup in 1954 and ruled until his overthrow in 1989. The period was marked by sustained human rights abuses of opponents.
The Mossad brokered a secret agreement with the Paraguayan regime.
According to the archived cabinet minutes, the head of the Mossad, Major General Zvi Zamir, said: “The proposal in question is the consent of the Paraguayan government, through the Paraguayan Institute of Agriculture and Immigration, to absorb for a minimum period of four years — although it can continue longer if things develop — 60,000 Arab Muslim people, Who by definition are not communists. She is willing to absorb them into the country, When the Government of Israel fulfills certain conditions.”
The plan guaranteed Israel would cover the emigrants’ travel expenses. It said they would be paid $100 each, plus $33 per person would go to the Paraguay government. On arrival, the Palestinians would receive residency rights, and citizenship after five years.
“According to the Israeli state papers, a down payment of $350,000 was made for the first 10,000 emigrants. The total bill for the 60,000 resettled Palestinians was estimated at $33 million.
“The idea was to seduce people to leave Gaza,” said Mor-Circurel.
To facilitate the movement of the Palestinians, Israel set up a travel agency in Gaza to entice people and provide them with the relevant documentation.
Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister from 1969 and 1974.
AP Photo/Charles Bennett, File
Through the human rights lens of 2020, the plan may appear shocking, said Mor-Circurel, but the Israeli leadership perspective in the late 1960s was formed from their own historical experience.
“Transferring populations from one place to another was common to these people. All of them were basically immigrants. Most of the policymakers came from other countries to the State of Israel,” he said.
“In the eyes of today, the idea of transferring the population is quite strange. But 1968 was not so far away from the division of Pakistan and India and the transfer of populations. It wasn’t considered human rights abuse.”
The secret Paraguay plan also mingles with the history of the Holocaust. Mor-Circurel points it formed as Israel wound down its hunt for fugitive Nazi war criminals.
Paraguay was a safe haven for many notorious fugitives from Hitler’s Third Reich. Josef Mengele, the so-called “the angel of death,” who carried out horrific medical experiments on Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, was gifted Paraguayan citizenship under his real name in 1959.
Mor-Circurel believes that Israel made a realpolitik decision that it was better to develop relations with South American countries than continue efforts to hunt down Nazis.
“The head of Mossad said it was too expensive to continue the Nazi-hunting operation and it should concentrate on security threats not ‘ghosts from the past’,” said Mor-Circurel.
Only 30 Palestinians ever made the 7,000 thousand-mile journey before the project came to a shuddering halt.
Mor-Circurel says his research suggests that the motive was more likely they were disgruntled with life in their new South American home. “It was convenient to claim they were terrorists,” he said.
It created a scandal around the Paraguayan resettlement plan, and Stroessner, fearing the Arab world’s wrath, aborted the project.
“This is an unusual story,” Professor Colin Shindler of the University of London (SOAS), told Business Insider, by email
“It was soon after the Six-Day War and there were no negotiations with the Arab states — a stalemate. It also coincided with the rise of Palestinian nationalism, Arafat and the PLO,” he said.
“Perhaps they believed that exporting 60,000 Palestinians would help to mitigate the problem. However, 60,000 is such a small number in the context of the population of the West Bank and Gaza that it would have made no difference.
“It sounds more like a temporary flight of fancy than a thought through idea. More wishful thinking than confronting the political reality,” he said.