Palestinians have reacted angrily after Israeli officials confirmed that efforts have been made to encourage residents of the Gaza Strip to emigrate.
Israeli officials , speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the security cabinet held at least five discussions on the plan, which involved providing financial assistance to residents of Gaza who wanted to leave and allowing them to depart via an airport in southern Israel.
Efforts were made to persuade unnamed European and Middle East countries to accept the Palestinians but no country agreed, leaving the Israeli plan stillborn.
Israeli ministers were briefed that last year at least 35,000 residents left the impoverished coastal enclave, most of them young and well-educated, via the Rafah crossing to Egypt, with no intention of returning. Most continued on to Europe, joining the flow of refugees from a host of Middle East and African countries, with the aim of making a new start away from war-torn Gaza.
According to reports from Gaza, the Hamas authorities were so alarmed by the exodus of doctors that they imposed a ban on doctors crossing into Egypt.
Hamas condemned the Israeli plan as a fantasy.
"This is an old-new Zionist dream," said Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem. "They want the Palestinians to leave and give up their land." Mr Qassem said the Palestinians had already proven they were prepared to make sacrifices to preserve their land and not abandon it.
A senior Palestinian Authority (PA) official in Ramallah said that instead of helping Palestinians leave the Gaza Strip, Israel needed to "stop punishing the two million residents living there". He said the talk about encouraging Palestinians to emigrate was "extremely dangerous and requires a strong response from the international community".
The Palestinian foreign ministry in Ramallah accused Israel of seeking to force the Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip by maintaining a blockade and “committing crimes” against Palestinians living there. It noted that the talk about encouraging Palestinians to emigrate “coincided with Israeli threats to launch a large-scale military operation against the Gaza Strip”.
Israeli Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman, from the predominantly Arab Joint List, accused Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu of "opening the gates of Gaza in order to carry out ethnic cleansing".
Israel captured the Gaza Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six-Day War and it was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994 under the terms of the Oslo peace accords.
The last Israeli troops and settlers left in 2005 as part of Israel’s unilateral disengagement and Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007.
Gaza suffers water and electricity shortages, ailing health services, widespread poverty and high unemployment. Fifty-three per cent of Palestinians in Gaza live in poverty, according to a June 2018 United Nations report.
Israel and Egypt maintain an economic blockade and control the border crossings, although Cairo periodically opens its Rafah terminal.
Israel and Gaza militants have fought three wars in the past decade, most recently in 2014, and engage in frequent bouts of cross-border exchanges.