Will Egypt accept Palestinian refugees in return for Israel’s monetary help?

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israel and hamas war
Egyptian President Al-Sisi (Left), Israeli PM Netanyahu (Right) (Photo: News Intervention)

Israel is reported to break a deal with Egypt amidst its ongoing war with Hamas. If reports are to be believed, Israel is negotiating a deal with Egypt on the basis of a quid pro quo. As per the alleged deal, Egypt will open its border for the Palestinian refugees from Gaza and would make settlement in Sinai peninsula, on the other hand, Israel would help Egypt to clear a significant portion of its foreign debt, which is currently the biggest matter of concern for Cairo.

Until the formal statement regarding the rumours comes from either side, it is difficult to say with utmost surety what lies ahead, but the reports can not be denied altogether as there are significant number of aspects that affirm the possibility of such a truce.

IDF following the suspicious footprints for Sinai settlement

In order to understand it better, it is important to analyse the plan of operation followed by the IDF. After Hamas launched a multi-front assault on Israel, Tel Aviv decided to put an end to the tussle with Hamas, at least for a long time if not forever. Just after the couple of hours of Hamas attack, Israeli M Netanyahu declared the state of war. Furthermore, the international spokesperson of IDF said, “the scenes out of Gaza will be hard to stomach,” referring to the Israeli counter attack on Hamas.

Later, Israel in its retaliatory assault launched the most lethal attacks on Gaza. Interestingly, this retaliation came with a warning to the Gazan civilians to leave the northern territory and move towards the southern part i.e., towards the border with Egypt. So, what does it tell? Apparently, Israel is not just fighting to retaliate instead it is trying to evacuate Gaza’s northern territory by flattening it through bombardment. This would definitely involve pushing Gazans to Egypt.

This has been evident from a secret advisory document released by the Israel’s Ministry of Intelligence. The ten-page document, dated October 13, was initially published by a Hebrew news website Mekomit, according to which, it was advised to take four actions during the course of war. These actions include:

  1. Instruct Palestinian civilians to evacuate to south Gaza while continuing airstrikes in northern part.
  2. Second phase would be of ground operations from north to south Gaza and “the purification of the subterranean bunkers of Hamas militants.
  3. Routes across Rafah to be left clear for easy evacuation.
  4. Establish tent cities in northern Sinai and construct cities to resettle Palestinians in Egypt.

Dealing US and Arab World

The document recommends, the security system should continue lobbying for support from the friendly states like the United States. Beside it should ensure that the transfer plan should be promoted to the Arab world in such a way that it should not put Israel in bad light.

Although the document is said to be non-binding and is only advisory in nature, it mustn’t be mistaken! Any official advisory document carries the same weightage as that of an order, especially at the time of war.

Regarding its authenticity, Mekomit in its report has claimed that it was confirmed by an official in Ministry of Intelligence and the report is authentic and was not meant to be made available to media.  

Like the secret document of Ministry of Intelligence, a paper was released by the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy on October 17. Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy is an Israeli think tank established and guided by former defense and security officials. The paper recommended that the Israeli government seize a “unique and rare opportunity” to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip and relocate Palestinians to Cairo with the support of the Egyptian government. Surprisingly, the Israeli Operation so far has conspicuously proceeded on the same lines.

The case with Egypt

This takes us to another important question, why would Egypt agree to such a condition and what revolves around Sinai Peninsula? To that extent it must be considered that Egypt was the first country among the archrivals of Israel to mull an agreement with Jewish state in 1971. After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israeli forces captured Sinai Peninsula, an Egyptian territory connecting West Asia to African continent. After years of negotiations, Israel and Egypt finally concluded a peace treaty in 1979 as per which, Israel vacated and destroyed its settlement in Sinai Peninsula. Relations between both the countries normalized and the state of war was officially ended. Egypt, on the other hand agreed to leave the Sinai demilitarized.

So evidently, despite differences over the issue of Palestine, Israel and Egypt have common grounds for any sort of agreement. Additionally, the condition for the agreement is that Israel would clear a significant portion of Egypt’s foreign aid.

Egypt’s economic crisis and foreign debt

It is well known that Egypt is grappling with financial crisis as a result of Covid pandemic and the protracted Russia-Ukraine war. Accordingly, its external debt has significantly risen in past few years.  By the end of March 2023, the external debt on Egypt rose to $165.3 billion, a 4.8 per cent year-on-year increase.  This external debt looks even more economically challenging when put into a frame with the GDP of the nation. According to reports, the net debt on Egypt is 88 per cent of the GDP in 2023, highest among the middle-income developing countries. Further, it is poised to rise 88.4% in 2024.

So, the economic condition of Egypt is tumultuous and validates the probability of truce. Moreover, to add a bit of surprise, it would not be the first time that Egypt and Israel would be discussing the settlement of Palestinians in Sinai.

Sinai settlement of Palestinian, not a new proposal

By March 1949, around 200,000 Palestinian refugees had fled from historic Palestine to Gaza. At that time, the United States advocated for a UN proposal aimed at settlement in Sinai desert for tens of thousands of refugees. Led by John B. Blandford, an experienced American policymaker, the newly-established United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) conducted surveys in the early 1950s to investigate desert reclamation initiatives in the Sinai, situated just east of the Suez Canal.

The intention was to have resettled Palestinian refugees take part in new agricultural development projects and become integrated into the Egyptian economy. Blandford believed this plan would provide a swift solution to the Palestinian refugee issue, assuming that once they achieved economic stability, the refugees would be less inclined to return to their original homes. The United States was the primary source of funding for this project, with an estimated budget of $30 million in 1955.

While in public statements at the UN, Egypt and other Arab states rejected all proposals related to settling Arab refugees through desert reclamation, they insisted that the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem should solely be sought within Palestine. Behind the scenes, however, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government collaborated closely with UNRWA to advance the Sinai resettlement scheme. They perceived it as being in their national interest, representing a large-scale agricultural development project supported by foreign investment that would significantly benefit the Egyptian economy during a period of financial and political instability.

Accordingly, Prior to Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the Israeli National Security leader suggested that Egypt take in a substantial portion of the Gaza population in return for land in Southern Israel. However, this proposal was declined by then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

With Striking similarities, the incumbent Egypt President Abdul Fateh Al-Sisi has also denied any Palestinian influx in the Egypt since day one of the Israel-Hamas war. However, Egypt, Israel and United Nations have reached a agreement to open Rafah borer for evacuation of injured Palestinians. Egypt is now looking to treat injured Palestinians in its own hospitals.

The change of heart and policy towards the war shows clear sign of something cooking behind the doors. At this point it must also be noted that US is also playing a key role in Palestinian’s displacement and their suspected settlement in Sinai Peninsula. On October 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the United States was working with Egypt and Israel to create a “humanitarian corridor” in the Sinai for Palestinian civilians fleeing Gaza.

Although, the actions of Egypt and US may seem to be a humanitarian push, it is worth asking why any Sinai when the US could use its influence to raise its humanitarian concern to Israel and reach a way out that does not require necessary displacement, like it used during Suez canal blockade in 1967?

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