Despite Cairo’s resistance, the old plan to relocate Palestinian people to Egypt has prompted new discussions © RT / RT
Egypt’s reaction to the events in the Gaza Strip has drawn renewed attention to the US-Israeli plan of relocating the Palestinian population living in Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula, which is now a part of Egypt. In former times, this question was repeatedly raised during negotiations with Cairo. Now, it looks like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will have to deal with the issue once again and find an optimal solution.
The first plans for resettlement
The idea of pushing the Palestinians out of Gaza first appeared back in the 1960s. After the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs as a result of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948-1949 and the Six-Day War in 1967, various Israeli institutions proposed solutions to this issue.
In 1968, the Israeli Foreign Ministry presented a project that would encourage Palestinians living in Gaza to move to the West Bank and then to Jordan and other Arab countries. In the same year, a US Congressional committee discussed a plan for the voluntary relocation of 200,000 Palestinians from Gaza to other countries, such as West Germany, Argentina, Paraguay, New Zealand, Brazil, Australia, Canada, and the USA. This plan failed, however, since many nations refused to accept the Palestinians.
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The Eiland Project
In 2000, Reserve Major General Giora Eiland, who headed the Israeli National Security Council, presented a project known as ‘Regional Alternatives to the Two-State Solution.’ Published by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, this document assumed that Egypt would cede a 720 square km rectangle on the territory of the Sinai Peninsula, including coastal areas and the city of el-Arish, in favor of a potential Palestinian state. In return, the Palestinians would give Gaza and a part of the West Bank over to Israel, while Egypt would receive equivalent territory in the southwestern part of the Negev Desert (the Wadi Feiran region), certain economic privileges, international support, and security concessions.
However, the plan was proposed at an inopportune moment – shortly after the failed negotiations at Camp David between Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and at the time of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. As a result, the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was frozen for several years, and the Giora Eiland project fell through.
The Trump Project
Similar initiatives were put forward in later years. Most of them were based on Eiland’s document. The so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ proposed by former US President Donald Trump in 2020 and officially titled Peace to Prosperity, was the most recent initiative to resolve the Gaza issue. Trump’s peace plan was not that different from the previous ones and included the same key points – Egypt would cede land in the Sinai Peninsula to build airports, factories, and business centers, and encourage agricultural and industrial projects that would help employ hundreds of thousands of people. According to the document, the new Palestinian State was supposed to grow and develop on this territory.
The ‘Deal of the Century’ (which never came into effect since Trump lost the 2020 elections) implied that Egypt would receive $9.17 billion for the development of Sinai, including half a billion dollars to support tourism projects in South Sinai on the Red Sea coast and $1.5 billion to support joint Egyptian-Israeli efforts for the establishment of a major regional natural gas hub. The Egyptian city of el-Arish, located 45 km from the Gaza border, was supposed to become a “new Jerusalem” for the Palestinians.
The ‘Deal of the Century’ today
Taking advantage of the recent Hamas threat, Israel has gone to great lengths to make this plan a reality. The uncompromising and brutal bombing of Gaza by the Israeli Air Force is meant to force the Palestinians to relocate to Egypt. Some people are already talking about the need to flee to Sinai. Now, the course of events will largely depend on Cairo’s decisions.
Coincidentally, the plan to move the Palestinians to Sinai is closely linked to the project of a new canal on Israeli territory – an alternative to the Suez Canal that would connect the Gulf of Aqaba to the Mediterranean Sea.
Known as the Ben Gurion Canal Project, it could become a “natural” security border between Israel and Egypt. In terms of trade and strategic interest, it would become a major competitor to the Suez Canal, through which about 20% of all world trade passes. In the 1960s, the United States and Israel were highly interested in this project. Researchers from both countries even studied the technical means of building the canal, considering the mountainous landscape of the Negev Desert.
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Both the US and Israel had raised the subject of relocating the Palestinians to Sinai during negotiations with former Egyptian Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. Shortly before he died, ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak described such offers. But he categorically rejected the proposal. In 2019, Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Abu Rudeineh also said President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed in 2013, was ready to make concessions on this issue. According to many analysts, this was one of the main reasons why he was removed from office.
Now, it is up to Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to deal with the issue, and he has already voiced his position. In particular, el-Sisi urged the protection of the Sinai Peninsula from plans to turn it into a theater of military operations. Egypt believes (and not without reason) that if a “new Palestine” is created in Sinai, the confrontation between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) will move to that region, particularly since the current escalation has significantly reduced the chance of a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue.
Currently, Israel is trying to exert pressure on Cairo, and this includes restricting the volume of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza through the Rafah checkpoint. For its part, Egypt has refused to accept Palestinian refugees through the same border crossing. However, all this only exacerbates the acute humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Assistance to Palestine
Even without being aware of all the intrigues going on behind the scenes, we can make certain conclusions. Egypt said that it is willing to accept wounded and seriously ill Palestinians. Cairo has officially stated that it will treat 100,000 people in its national medical institutions. For this purpose, a field hospital was quickly constructed in the town of Sheikh Zuweid near Rafah, which will become a transit point for the wounded before they can be transported to city medical centers. Whether Israel will allow all these people to return home eventually is a big question. And considering the constant attacks, the number of wounded who are allowed into Egypt may increase in the future.
Presently, Cairo is focused on providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. According to the local branch of the Red Crescent, Egypt provided the largest amount of humanitarian aid – about 9,000 tons – to the residents of Gaza.
Cairo is also taking steps that would allow Palestinian refugees to settle in the north of the Sinai Peninsula. In el-Arish, two multi-story buildings have been allocated for this purpose, which can house 300 people. Moreover, Cairo decided to allow Egyptians who were previously displaced during the fight with local ISIS groupings to return to the region.
In recent years, Cairo claimed that these territories have been completely cleared of militants and terrorists, whom Egypt has fought since 2015. Following the protests organized by the evacuated residents on October 31, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly arrived in el-Arish with an inspection, accompanied by the head of the local militia and prominent businessman Ibrahim al-Arjani. Both visited Sinai to announce upcoming construction projects and, most likely, to calm the people before the events to come.
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“People’s mandate” for el-Sisi
Another notable event took place within the past month. On October 20, President el-Sisi organized mass street demonstrations to obtain a “mandate” from the people that would allow him to make any decisions related to the Palestinian events.
Within a few days, all the official Egyptian media and newspapers affiliated with the security services published a so-called “mandate,” which residents of all cities were supposed to “grant” to their president by holding mass demonstrations to support him. The document contained the following points, which reflect the official position of the authorities:
“I, a citizen of Egypt, authorize President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi:
– to protect the land of Egypt from danger and war with Israel and to complete the peace process that has stalled for decades;
– to protect Sinai from plans to turn it into a theater of military operations and combat operations
– to protect the Palestinians, who must remain on their land. ‘There is no state without a people!’
– to protect the Palestinian cause, which may cease to exist if the Palestinians are relocated to Egypt and Jordan.”
During an emergency meeting on October 19, the Egyptian parliament also granted President el-Sisi a mandate to take the necessary measures to protect national security and oppose Israel’s plan to move the Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula.
Members of the House of Representatives gave el-Sisi, as the supreme commander of the Armed Forces, the authority to take any measures that he would deem necessary to ensure the security of the country’s eastern borders and to protect Egyptian lands.
Meanwhile, despite official statements, many Egyptian political activists, journalists, and bloggers saw these events as a trick to deceive the people and circumvent Article 151 of the Egyptian Constitution, which obliges the country to hold a referendum on any issue related to its territorial sovereignty.
In recent days, certain reports have appeared in the Israeli media stating that Israel would supposedly write off a large part of Egypt’s external debt if it agreed to create Palestinian settlements in the Sinai Peninsula. However, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi firmly rejected the idea. On October 17, he stated that the displacement of the residents of Gaza to Sinai would be tantamount to declaring war on Egypt. He proposed an alternative – to relocate the civilian population to the Negev Desert until the end of the conflict.
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Why is Egypt against this plan?
What threat does implementing the ‘Deal of the Century’ pose to Egypt? Firstly, the mass resettlement of the Palestinian people could cause the confrontation between Hamas and Israel to move to Egyptian territory, involving Egypt in the war.
Secondly, this scenario poses a threat to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Egypt – particularly since, in 1977, the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt as a condition for peace with Israel. Moreover, the proposed status of the potential Palestinian settlements in Egypt remains unclear.
Egypt is afraid of being drawn into the war. Israeli media have hinted that the IDF may open a new front with Egypt under the pretext of Cairo’s alleged assistance to Hamas. A few days ago, the Israel Defense magazine, published by the Israeli Armed Forces, reported that Israel needs to threaten Egypt and, if necessary, wage war against it since the latter violated the 1979 peace agreement by deploying considerable military infrastructure on the territory of the Sinai Peninsula, close to the Israeli border.
Currently, Cairo maintains relative neutrality and continues to be a mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as it has been for the past decades. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s policy is focused on protecting national interests, avoiding direct involvement in hostilities, and securing his country’s borders to the maximum extent.
By Tamara Ryzhenkova – orientalist, specialist in the history of the Middle East, expert for the Arab Africa Telegram channel