Why Does Egypt Fear Evacuating Gaza?

By Matthew Petti | Reponsible Statecraft/Quincy Institute
(Image, courtesy AlJazeera video stream)
The Israeli army ordered the evacuation of the entire north half of Gaza, home to 1 million people, on Thursday night (October 12). The United Nations said that the evacuation order — which originally gave Palestinians only 24 hours to leave — was impossible to fulfill, and the Norwegian Refugee Council argued that Israel’s plans amount to “to the war crime of forcible transfer” of civilians.

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a speech late on Thursday that Egypt was committed to providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, but that Palestinians must “remain on their land” because their removal from Gaza would bring “the elimination of the [Palestinian] cause.” He had earlier claimed that “Egypt will not allow the Palestinian cause to be settled at the expense of other parties.”

The Biden administration is working to set up a “humanitarian corridor” for Palestinian civilians in Gaza to flee to Egypt, but Cairo is signaling that it will not accept a solution that forces Palestinians to leave Gaza without any hope of return.

Reuters reported on Wednesday that Egypt rejected the idea of evacuations in order to protect Palestinians’ right to stay on their land. A chorus of Egyptian officials, media personalities, and religious authorities have stated over the past two days — with almost exactly the same wording — that Egypt will not tolerate Israel pushing Palestinians into Egypt at the expense of “Egyptian sovereignty.”

Speaking anonymously to Cairo News, high-level officials denounced the “calls for a mass exodus” from “some parties,” which are a “proxy for emptying the [Gaza] Strip of its inhabitants and liquidating the Palestinian issue itself.” The statement seemed aimed at Israeli member of parliament Ariel Kallner, who called for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza this week.

Egypt’s prestigious Al-Azhar seminary, meanwhile, put out a statement on Wednesday urging Palestinians to remain “steadfast,” because “leaving your land is the death of your cause and will cause the disappearance of your land forever.”

Israel, reeling from the murder of hundreds of Israeli civilians by Hamas guerrillas, has begun an intense retribution campaign against Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas. The Israeli military has cut off food, water, and electricity to Gaza while bombing the area more intensely than ever before.

Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to launch a ground invasion.

International calls for a “humanitarian corridor” have mounted as food rations dry up and hospitals run low on vital supplies. However, different parties have very different visions in mind. The World Health Organization is demanding that medicine be allowed into Gaza, while the Biden administration has apparently focused on evacuating civilians out of Gaza.

It is unclear whether the Biden administration would pressure Israel to allow Palestinians to return to Gaza after the war is over. U.S. officials have publicly called on Israel to respect the laws of war.

The situation resembles the siege of Karabakh over the past few months. Azerbaijani authorities had cut off food supplies to the Armenian enclave of Karabakh for several months, leading to mass starvation. Last month, the Azerbaijani military began a campaign to retake Karabakh, while advertising a “humanitarian corridor” — in those exact words — for locals to flee to Armenia.

Almost the entire population of Karabakh fled and are unlikely to return. Many critics, from Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinyan to prominent American columnists, have called the emptying of Karabakh an act of ethnic cleansing.

Israeli politicians have indicated that they prefer a similar solution in Gaza, and perhaps the entire Palestinian territories. The idea of solving the Palestinian issue through “population transfer” has grown more popular with the Israeli public over the past few years. Bezalel Smotrich, the Israeli minister in charge of the West Bank, once proposed a “Decisive Plan” that would give Palestinians a choice between accepting permanent Israeli rule or emigrating.

Kallner, the Israeli member of parliament, wrote on social media that Israel should have “one goal: Nakba! A Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48. Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!”

The Nakba refers to the mass exile of Palestinians during the Israeli war of independence in 1948. Around 700,000 people left their homes, with many fleeing to Gaza, then under Egyptian control.

Egypt relinquished its claim to Gaza in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1978. The treaty, known as the Camp David Accords, called for Israel to establish Palestinian self-rule in the territory instead. Jordan agreed to a similar principle in the 1980s, giving up its claims on the West Bank in favor of the Palestinian independence movement.

Jordanian leaders often say that their goal was to prevent Israel from trying to create an “alternative [Palestinian] homeland” on Jordanian soil. Khaled el Gendy, an official with Egypt’s ministry of religion, brought up the same specter in a Tuesday speech.

“Now some calls have appeared to push the Palestinians out of their land and put them into the Sinai to create an alternative homeland,” he said, referring to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. “This cannot happen, ever.”

The Israeli ambassador in Cairo stated on social media that Israel has no designs on taking the Sinai from Egypt.

Of course, it is possible to evacuate civilians from Gaza without Egypt’s involvement. Israeli authorities could allow Palestinians to travel from Gaza to the West Bank — or they could set up refugee camps within Israel proper. Such a solution would assuage concerns that Israel plans to permanently depopulate Gaza.

However, Israel does not appear interested in taking in Palestinian refugees. All checkpoints controlling access to the West Bank are also under complete lockdown.

Matthew Petti is an independent journalist and a non-resident fellow at the Kurdish Peace Institute. He worked for various Jordanian news outlets as a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. Previously, he worked as a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and a national security reporter at The National Interest. His work has appeared in The Intercept, The Daily Beast, and Reason Magazine.

This article first appeared in Responsible Statecraft. Click here to go to the original.

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