Foreign Policy Africa Brief
October 18, 2023
Aid convoy trucks are seen waiting to cross at Gaza’s Rafah border on Oct. 17, 2023 in North Sinai, Egypt. Mahmoud Khaled/Getty Images
In an attempt to wipe out Hamas after the group killed at least 1,300 people in attacks on Oct. 7, Israeli airstrikes have destroyed more than 22,000 Palestinian residential units in Gaza, and almost 3,000 people have been killed there in the past ten days. The Israeli military last week ordered 1.1 million civilians to flee south toward the Egyptian border—ostensibly for their own safety but in effect encouraging the displacement of half of the territory’s population.
Meanwhile, Egypt has deployed hundreds of security forces to the Rafah border crossing, according to Egyptian media, and is resisting pressure from Israel and the United States to let Palestinians flee, fearing an exodus of Gaza’s 2.3 million people into its Sinai Peninsula—where Egypt is already fighting insurgents. It fears assuming responsibility for a massive refugee population and the risks of fleeing militants using its territory to attack or plot against Israel, which could prompt Israel to target them on Egyptian soil.
As the Financial Times noted, “Cairo would not want to police an exiled community that could include militants who want to fight Israel from its territory.”
Following a rapid diplomatic tour across the Middle East by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Egypt has said it will allow foreign nationals and dual-citizen Palestinians safe passage through Rafah if humanitarian aid is allowed to enter Gaza. At the time of writing, the border was still closed.
Together with Israel, Egypt has upheld a 16-year blockade on Gaza from the Rafah crossing, the only non-Israeli exit point. Arab countries including Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates have rallied humanitarian assistance, as well as a blood donation campaign initiated by the Egyptian government, with around 100 aid trucks stuck on the Egyptian side of the border.
Egypt said the Rafah crossing has become inoperable due to Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza side and won’t open the border unless there is assurance its aid convoys will not be bombarded. From Israel’s perspective, it rejects a temporary cease-fire for aid unless hostages held by Hamas are released. Hospitals in Gaza are on the brink of collapse. Israel has cut off supplies of food, water, and fuel.
There is also a political element. Many Egyptians fear opening up the border to all Palestinians instead of sending aid into Gaza would allow Israel to permanently reoccupy an ethnically cleansed Gaza Strip and push the burden of a refugee crisis onto Cairo. The fears are not without merit. Israelis have previously suggested that Egypt cede part of its territory to form a Palestinian state.
Ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak denied reports in 2017 that he had reached a deal with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1983 to resettle Palestinians exiled in Lebanon in Sinai, adding that he rejected a similar proposal in 2010 by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to create a Palestinian state there—which Israel seized in 1967 and then handed back in the wake of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty that followed the Camp David Accords.
Amira Oron, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, sought last week to dispel revived concerns about the expulsion of Palestinians to Sinai, stating, “Sinai is Egyptian territory.”
Still, Palestinians have reason to be fearful: Displacements into Arab states in previous Israel-Palestine conflicts have been permanent. Many of the descendants of those who fled their homes during the 1948 war that led to Israel’s creation still live in refugee camps in neighboring countries as well as in Gaza, which was ruled by Egypt for most of the period between 1949 and 1967.
Following an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo last Wednesday, the 22-member bloc agreed to reject any attempt to displace Palestinians once again onto their neighbors. Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul Gheit urgently appealed to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to condemn “this insane Israeli effort to transfer the population.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi described the Palestinian struggle as “the cause of all Arabs,” saying that “it is important that the [Palestinian] people remain steadfast and present on their land.” The sentiment is echoed by Egyptian religious institutions and the public. On Sunday, Egyptian members of the House of Representatives collectively rejected the displacement of Palestinians into Sinai.
Egyptian news outlet Al-Ahram Online quoted one representative calling for the Egyptian government to expel Israel’s ambassador to Cairo and withdraw the Egyptian ambassador.
However, a recent directive from North Sinai’s governor, Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha, for local authorities “to list schools, housing units and vacant land to be used as shelters if required” suggests the country could receive some refugees, although Egypt’s House speaker, Hanafy El-Gebaly, said the country would “defend its national security in all circumstances.”
Analysts believe Egypt is also worried about security threats from Hamas infiltration and the links between Islamic State insurgents that Egypt has been battling for more than a decade in north Sinai. According to the Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr, designated shelters are to be cordoned off to prevent Palestinians from being able to enter the walled city of Arish, Sinai’s largest city.
A major refugee influx is a red line for a president fighting for reelection in December. Egyptian lawmakers view it not only as a security risk but an impossible squeeze on an economy near bankruptcy and facing reforms through a $3 billion International Monetary Fund bailout (Cairo is now asking the IMF for more).
Egypt’s inflation reached almost 40 percent in August, while its borrowing costs shot up following the Israel-Hamas war as investors weighed a possible Egyptian liability for refugees, almost half of whom are children. Egyptian officials said the country is already hosting 300,000 Sudanese refugees.
Sisi has called for an international summit to take place Saturday to discuss the future of Palestine. U.S. lawmakers only weeks ago decided to withhold U.S. aid money because of Egypt’s human rights record under Sisi, as well as due to the indictment of Sen. Bob Menendez on charges of taking bribes from Egyptians linked to the government.
Although Cairo is currently economically weakened, the Israel-Hamas war is a reminder of Egypt’s outsized role as a mediating power. The U.S. government’s need to work with Egypt on opening the border, aiding Palestinians within Gaza, or hosting potential refugees fleeing the strip will necessitate more aid, closer ties, and the likely continuation of policies that overlook Egypt’s own rights abuses.
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