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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel quietly pushed for Egypt to admit large numbers of Gazans

Israeli police and soldiers are confronted by protesters outside the residence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

By Patrick Kingsley

Israel has quietly tried to build international support in recent weeks for the transfer of several hundred thousand civilians from the Gaza Strip to Egypt for the duration of its war in the territory, according to six senior foreign diplomats.

Israeli leaders and diplomats have privately proposed the idea to several foreign governments, framing it as a humanitarian initiative that would allow civilians to temporarily escape the perils of Gaza for refugee camps in the Sinai Desert, just across the border in neighboring Egypt.

The suggestion was dismissed by most of Israel’s interlocutors — who include the United States and Britain — because of the risk that such a mass displacement could become permanent. These countries fear that such a development might destabilize Egypt and lock significant numbers of Palestinians out of their homeland, according to the diplomats, who spoke anonymously in order to discuss a sensitive matter more freely.

The idea has also been firmly rejected by Palestinians, who fear that Israel is using the war — which began Oct. 7 after terrorists from Gaza raided Israel and killed roughly 1,400 people — to permanently displace the more than 2 million people living in Gaza.

More than 700,000 Palestinians either fled or were expelled from their homes in what is now Israel during the war surrounding the creation of the state in 1948. Many of their descendants are now warning that the current war will end with a similar “nakba,” or catastrophe, as the 1948 migration is known in Arabic.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to comment on the proposal.

Days after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that oversees Gaza, the Israeli military called for all residents of northern Gaza — about half the entire population of the territory — to evacuate to southern Gaza as it prepared for a ground invasion. But Israel did not publicly suggest that Palestinians cross the Egyptian border, which has been largely sealed since the start of the war.

Egypt has rejected the idea of a temporary displacement, let alone a permanent one. A spokesperson for the Egyptian government declined to comment, referring instead to a speech made last month by Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the Egyptian president, that dismissed idea.

“Egypt has affirmed and reiterated its complete rejection of the forced displacement of Palestinians and their exodus to Egyptian lands in Sinai, as this is nothing but a final liquidation of the Palestinian cause,” el-Sissi said in a speech published on his website.

Some of Netanyahu’s political allies, however, have publicly backed the idea of temporarily moving large numbers of Palestinians to Egypt as well as to other countries in the region and in the West.

Danny Danon, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said he supported evacuating civilians in Gaza to give Israel more room to maneuver during its ground invasion of Gaza, and to move civilians out of harm’s way.

“We’re trying to lower the level of casualties for our troops and for the civilians,” Danon said in a phone interview. “We expect not only the Egyptians, but the entire international community to make a genuine effort to support and accept the residents of Gaza.”

Danon added that the idea would need the agreement of the Egyptian government, which controls Gaza’s southern border. However, Danon is not a member of the government and could not confirm whether Israel had been pushing foreign governments to back such a plan.

Israel’s diplomatic push has added to a growing sense of uncertainty about what will happen if Israel takes control over parts or all of Gaza, even temporarily, at the end of its military operations.

Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Oct. 27, nearly three weeks after Hamas overran parts of southern Israel.

Israel’s stated goals are the dismantling of Hamas and the rescue of more than 240 civilians and soldiers captured by the group and its allies on Oct. 7. But Israeli officials have repeatedly said they are still assessing who should lead the enclave once those goals are achieved.

One proposal is to cede Gaza to an international force that could then help reconstruct its infrastructure and housing before handing it to the Palestinian Authority, a more moderate Palestinian institution that administers parts of the occupied West Bank. But the authority has said that it does not want to take over the territory unless Israel allows the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

Some Israeli hard-liners advocate keeping control of Gaza and permanently expelling its Palestinian residents. A Likud lawmaker, Ariel Kallner, has called for another nakba that would “overshadow” the original mass displacement in 1948.

“Right now, one goal: Nakba!” Kallner said on Oct. 8. “Nakba in Gaza and Nakba to anyone who dares to join!” he added.

Egypt plays a delicate role in Gaza — part border guard, part mediator, part aid facilitator — but it does not want to end up as the de facto administrator of the territory. After more than a decade of internal turmoil kicked off by the Arab Spring uprising, the country is now mired in a deep economic crisis and fears a large influx of Palestinians could be even more destabilizing.

Egypt fears that the sudden immigration of Palestinians could roil northern Sinai, where the Egyptian military has struggled to contain an Islamist insurgency, or that it could lead some Palestinians to launch attacks from Sinai into Israel, which could then draw Egypt into conflict with Israel.

Danon said that Israel did not intend to expel Palestinians from the enclave and that anyone who left would be allowed to return.

The defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said last month that Israel would not seek to maintain day-to-day control over Gaza after the invasion.

But the matter is still the subject of considerable discussion and disagreement within Israel’s government and governing coalition. Some members of Netanyahu’s coalition and officials in his government have expressly called for the permanent expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza.

A department within Israel’s Intelligence Ministry, which has no executive power, published a paper Oct. 13 recommending “the evacuation of the civilian population from Gaza to Sinai.” After the document was leaked to Local Call, an Israeli news outlet, the prime minister’s office confirmed the authenticity of the document — but said it was just a “preliminary paper.”

A far-right government minister, Amichay Eliyahu, said Wednesday that the Gaza Strip should be given to former Israeli soldiers who fought in Gaza — or to former Israeli settlers who lived in the enclave before Israel withdrew from it in 2005. Then, on Sunday, Eliyahu said that Israel should consider dropping a nuclear bomb on Gaza, an idea that drew condemnation from Netanyahu and other members of the government.

Video has also emerged of an Israeli military officer recently calling for Israel to reoccupy Gaza, as well as a separate video that shows a pop singer calling for the reoccupation of Gaza, prompting the approval of an audience of soldiers. In response, the Israeli military condemned the officer and said it was looking into the incident with the pop singer.

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