A Palestinian man waits to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip on June 17, 2014. Credit - Abed Rahim Khatib—NurPhoto/Corbis/Getty Images
For Palestinians, permanent displacement from their homeland is a perennial fear. It is one that has followed them from the war that led to Israel’s creation to 1948, in which some 700,000 Palestinians were violently expelled or forced to flee their homes and native villages in what they dub as the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” to the systemic evictions and home demolitions of the present. Now, the specter of forced mass expulsion looms over the enclave’s more than 2 million inhabitants, as Israel’s bombardment of the Strip, which has killed at least 9,000 Palestinians, forces them to flee south. The scale of the death and destruction, coupled with the dire humanitarian crisis, has increased international pressure on Arab countries—in particular Egypt—to open its border with Gaza to Palestinian refugees.
Egypt has so far refused to do so, save for the hundreds of select foreign nationals and dozens of wounded Palestinians who were permitted to exit Gaza via the Egyptian-controlled Rafah crossing this week. Its reasons are multifold, involving not just its own economic and security considerations, but also history and concerns over the precedent such a move would set—particularly if those refugees are never permitted to return home, in contravention of international law. “Egypt has reaffirmed, and is reiterating, its vehement rejection of the forced displacement of the Palestinians and their transfer to Egyptian lands in Sinai,” Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi told attendees of the Cairo peace summit on Oct. 21, noting that such an outcome “will mark the last gasp in the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”
‘Egypt is not unreasonable’
Egypt has every reason to be skeptical. It only needs to look at the experience of nearby Jordan and Lebanon, both of which were forced to absorb hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees amid past wars (none of whom have been permitted to return), to know that any solutions billed as a temporary humanitarian measure may turn out otherwise. The expulsionary rhetoric of the Israeli government, both before and since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, hasn’t placated those concerns. Indeed, a recently leaked document from Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence, dated Oct. 13, outlines a proposal to forcibly and permanently transfer Gaza’s Palestinians to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. “The messages should revolve around the loss of land, making it clear that there is no hope of returning to the territories Israel will soon occupy, whether or not that is true,” reads the document, which was first reported on by +972 Magazine and its sister Hebrew-language site Local Call. “The image needs to be, ‘Allah made sure you lose this land because of Hamas’ leadership — there is no choice but to move to another place with the assistance of your Muslim brothers.’”
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While there is no evidence that this plan has been taken up as policy, its very existence indicates that “at the highest levels of the Israeli government, this has been discussed as an option,” says H.A. Hellyer, a London-based Middle East scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “So [Egypt] is not unreasonable in thinking that this might be the case.”
Such an outcome would have disastrous implications for Egypt, not least because the country can scarcely afford to. Egypt has been reeling from an economic crisis in which its debt has ballooned, its credit rating tanked, and its currency has plummeted to the extent that it is now considered among the worst in the world. The International Monetary Fund, which attributed the economic stagnation in part to “the military’s pervasive control over the economy,” has called on Cairo to enact reforms in return for loans.
Even if Egypt’s debts were to be forgiven—as has been reported in Israeli and international media as a rumored incentive for Cairo to take in refugees—there are security concerns that must also be taken into account. The Sinai Peninsula has long been a hotbed of violent insurgency by Islamist militants, including those associated with the Islamic State. (Indeed, the U.S. State Department maintains a travel warning against Americans going to Sinai, citing frequent attacks on security forces and civilians.) “The Egyptians have, for the last decade and a half, struggled to maintain security control within the Sinai Peninsula,” says Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. and an expert on Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While the Egyptian government has made progress in that regard, Munayyer says transferring Gaza’s population there would almost certainly risk reversing that progress, especially if it invites Israel-Hamas tensions onto Egyptian territory. “From Egypt’s perspective, those grievances are not going to go away if the population comes onto its land,” he says. “And so it’s inviting direct conflict with Israel into the Sinai.”
Such an outcome risks endangering Egypt’s 40-year peace deal with Israel, which was and continues to be controversial among the Egyptian populace. Part of the way Egyptian leaders were able to sell the deal to the public was by emphasizing its role in helping Egypt to regain sovereignty over Sinai, which Israel seized during the Six Day War in 1967 until its peace deal with Egypt in 1979. The irony, Munayyer says, is that “for Egypt to be forced into a position where it has to accept millions of Palestinians it does not want to accept into its territory is a negation of the idea that Egypt has national sovereignty over the Sinai.”
But perhaps the biggest reason Egypt has rebuffed pressure to take in Palestinian refugees is because of the outrage that being seen to collaborate with their displacement would cause—not only among its own populace, but across the region. “There is no situation where Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes were allowed to return by the Israeli authorities,” Hellyer says, noting that despite Israel’s 2005 withdrawal of troops and settlements from the territory, it continues to enjoy “effective control of Gaza,” including its land, air, and sea borders. Israel’s suffocating 16-year blockade of Gaza, which is also enforced by Egypt, tightly restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of the Strip.
As Egypt sees it, a ceasefire is the only tenable solution to this humanitarian crisis—one that, fundamentally, is not of its own making. Indeed, Egyptian officials were quick to note in the aftermath of Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre that it had warned Israel about a possible attack three days prior. Their argument is, essentially, “‘Why should we get stuck holding the bag?’” Munayyer says. “That, I think, is creating a lot of resentment.”
‘It’s more than just rhetoric; it’s actual history repeating itself’
The recent spate of normalization deals between Israel and largely Gulf Arab countries notwithstanding, the Palestinian issue remains a potent one on the Arab street, as recently evidenced by demonstrations in Amman, Beirut, and Cairo. “One of the longest open wounds in the Arab world is the issue of Palestine and the failure to resolve it,” Munayyer says. “For Arab governments to be seen again as complicit in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is touching on the rawest nerve across the entire Arab world.”
These concerns haven’t escaped the notice of U.S. President Joe Biden, who this week announced that he had discussed with Egypt’s Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II the importance of “ensuring that Palestinians in Gaza are not displaced to Egypt or any other nation.” But fears remain that Israel could still seek to depopulate Gaza with U.S. backing. Observers have seized on the language around the White House’s request for supplemental funding for Israel, which says that “these resources would … address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries.” (The White House has since told reporters that the language was included in order to prepare “for all possible contingencies.”)
But as Munayyer sees it, “You don’t budget for these things unless you think there’s a real likelihood that it’s going to happen.”
How Israel, Egypt, and the U.S. choose to act in this moment will not only have a profound effect on the war, but on the future of Palestinian self-determination at large. Both Munayyer and Hellyer warn that the forced transfer of Palestinians in Gaza could be regarded as a trial run for a similar displacement of Palestinians in the West Bank, many of whom have already faced a surge in violence and intimidation by Israeli settlers. Indeed, Palestinians in the West Bank have reported receiving leaflets telling them to flee to Jordan or face another Nakba.
“We have seen this history of war being used as a cover for ethnic cleansing time and again,” Munayyer says. “It’s more than just rhetoric; it’s actual history repeating itself.”
Write to Yasmeen Serhan at email@example.com.