By Girish Linganna
A recently leaked wartime proposal drafted by the Israeli government proposes to transfer the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million populace to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The move has deepened Egypt’s long-standing fears that Israel wants to turn Gaza into Cairo’s problem and refreshed memories for Palestinians of their greatest trauma when Israel’s creation in 1948 uprooted hundreds of thousands of their native people and forced them to flee from their homes.
The spectre of a permanent expulsion of Palestinians by Israel into Egyptian territory, as happened during the war surrounding Israel’s independence, has for long haunted Cairo. Egypt had ruled over Gaza between 1948 and 1967, before Israel captured the territory, along with east Jerusalem and the West Bank. A significant portion of Gaza’s population happens to have descended from Palestinian refugees uprooted from the land now under Israel.
Even as the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the report compiled by the Intelligence Ministry as a hypothetical exercise, or a ‘concept paper’, the spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said, “We’re against transfer to any place, in any form”, and that it was a red line that Palestinians would not allow to be crossed. “1948 will not be repeated,” he stated.
Although Egypt’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the report, it has been Cairo’s clear message throughout this latest war that it is averse to opening its arms to a wave of Palestinian refugees. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi believes that a mass influx of refugees from Gaza would be contrary to the Palestinian nationalist cause and may even open the doors of Sinai to militants, making it easier for them to launch attacks on Israel, putting at stake the two countries’ 1979 peace treaty. El-Sissi has another solution: that Israel, instead, opens its Negev Desert, neighbouring the Gaza Strip, to the Palestinian refugee influx, till the cessation of military operations.
First published on October 28 by Sicha Mekomit, a local news site, the document dated October 13—just six days after Hamas militants stormed southern Israel killing more than 1,400 people and taking hostage over 240—an attack which provoked the deadly retaliation by Israel in Gaza. Those who drafted the report for the Intelligence Ministry—a junior ministry that carries out research but does not determine policy—suggested three alternatives to significantly change the civilian reality in the Gaza Strip in the light of the Hamas blitz that led to the ‘Sword of Iron war’ and chose this alternative as the one most desirable for Israel’s security.
The document outlined a plan to shift Gaza’s civilian population to tent settlements, followed by establishment of permanent cities in northern Sinai and then create an “undefined humanitarian corridor”. A closed security zone set up inside Israel and stretching several kilometres inside Egypt would block displaced Palestinians from entering. The report, however, did not comment on the fate of Gaza once it was cleared of its population.
But the document does not stop at that. Egypt would not necessarily be the last stop for the hapless Palestinian refugees. Besides Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE may also support the plan either financially, or by admitting displaced Gaza residents initially as refugees and, later, as citizens. Canada also finds mention in the document as a potential resettlement target because of its “lenient” immigration policies. Two other options that the document dismisses as unviable as those would not be able to deter future attacks on Israel are: reinstating the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority as the rulers of Gaza, or lending support to a local dispensation.
The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, called a debate that planned to build on the gains created by Friday’s overwhelming vote by the UN General Assembly appealing for a “humanitarian truce”, where the commissioner general for the main UN agency in Palestine, Philippe Lazzarini, told the UN Security Council that the entire population of Gaza was becoming “dehumanized”, and an immediate ceasefire is now a question of life and death for millions.
Lazzarini, UNRWA commissioner-general, was one of three speakers who starkly described the scale of the damage being inflicted on Gaza, as UN agencies piled pressure on the Security Council to set aside its divergent views and show solidarity for some form of humanitarian ceasefire. The speakers detailed a breakdown in civil order, the loss of clean water and a death rate of children that matched the number of children killed in conflict over the past four years.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, in unabated sufferings and human misery, thousands in Gaza broke into several UN aid depots and warehouses snatching basic food supplies, including wheat flour, the BBC quoted the UN relief agency for Palestinian refugees as saying, even as more Israeli troops entered the territory overnight, while warplanes picked out over 450 Hamas targets.
There is an acute scarcity of food in Gaza. The lack of electricity and fuel for generators—which Israel has blocked over concerns it could be stolen by Hamas—has cut off operations for many food suppliers. Gaza Palestinians spoke of their fruitless searches for open vendors or waiting in line for hours on end only for a day’s worth of bread for their family.
“It’s worrying that civil order is at a breaking point only three weeks after the war started and Gaza came under a tight siege,” said top UNRWA official for Gaza Thomas White on Saturday. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)