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Why Egypt doesn't want Palestinians in Gaza to cross the border

People look out from a rooftop last week as displaced Palestinians who fled Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip set up camp in Rafah, farther south, near Gaza's border with Egypt.
Mohammed Abed
AFP via Getty Images
People look out from a rooftop last week as displaced Palestinians who fled Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip set up camp in Rafah, farther south, near Gaza's border with Egypt.

TEL AVIV, Israel — As the bombardment of Gaza intensifies, forcing Palestinians to flee their homes, Israel's military is directing them to the territory's southernmost Rafah governorate. There, hemmed in by Israeli forces and the Mediterranean Sea, Palestinians seemingly have only one place to go — across the border into Egypt's Sinai Desert.

Egypt has rejected allowing an influx from Gaza, citing concerns about the displacement of Palestinians and regional security issues.

But it's an option that Israel has apparently considered. A "concept paper" drafted by Israeli intelligence shortly after the start of the war in October proposes moving Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to tent encampments in northern Sinai and then building permanent cities. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office has said the report is only a hypothetical exercise.

According to Gaza's Health Ministry, more than 17,000 people have been killed since Israel's air and ground assault began. It came in response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, which killed 1,200 people, Israel says.

Some 85% of Gaza's 2.3 million people have been internally displaced since the start of the war, according to the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who last week sought a Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire, which failed because of a U.S. veto, warned on Sunday that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is in free fall.

"I expect public order to completely break down soon, and an even worse situation could unfold, including epidemic diseases and increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt," Guterres said at an international conference in Qatar.

Despite telling Palestinians to move south, Israel has repeatedly carried out airstrikes in the Rafah area.

Egyptians fear undermining a future Palestinian state

For Egypt, the crisis in Gaza comes as its authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is facing voters in an election that concludes Tuesday. Although Sisi faces no credible opponent and is all but certain to win, public opinion still matters.

Despite an official ban on public protests, Egyptians have turned out in numbers to rally in support of Palestinians in Gaza. Sisi himself said in October that he rejects Palestinians being displaced, saying it could forever undermine the push for Palestinian statehood. "The Palestinian cause is the mother of all causes and has a significant impact on security and stability," he said.

Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest in support of the Palestinian people at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Oct. 20.
Mohamed Hossam / Getty Images
Getty Images
Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest in support of the Palestinian people at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Oct. 20.

It's a position popular with many Egyptians and others in the Arab world, who are sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians in Israel.

Egypt, which already hosts 9 million refugees, according to U.N. figures, has repeatedly insisted an exodus of besieged Palestinians will not be allowed. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has called the prospect "totally unacceptable."

Shoukry, speaking last week to the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, noted the "unprecedented level of human suffering" in Gaza. He said transferring Gazans to Egyptian territory would be a violation of international humanitarian law and "an effort to liquidate the Palestinian cause."

Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, says Sisi's standing with ordinary Egyptians "has actually been bolstered by the position that he has taken in the war."

Security concerns

There's another motive in the mix, says Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv. Security concerns for Egypt are paramount. Sisi's rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood briefly led Egypt before he took power around a decade ago, and in the 1980s Hamas emerged as an offshoot of the group. Islamists still pose a threat to Sisi's rule, and Egypt is also battling Islamist insurgents in Sinai, just across the Gaza border.

"What you get in Sinai is a splinter of ISIS," Rabi says, referring to the Islamic State militant group. He describes those operating in Sinai as "a cocktail of Islamic radicalism, terrorism ... arms smuggling and all that stuff."

The fear for some is that militants may escape into Egypt from Gaza. And if Hamas were to launch attacks on Israel from Sinai, then the concern becomes that Israel could retaliate with strikes inside Egypt.

Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, thinks Hamas may not be Egypt's primary concern.

"There are other militant groups in Gaza," such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, he says. Even if one militant group disappears, "it doesn't mean militancy is going to go away," Kaldas says. He doubts Israel can eradicate Hamas, but even if that happened, "there's certainly a risk that other groups will sprout in its place."

There's also the history of conflict. Egypt has fought wars with Israel in the past. And Egypt administered the Gaza Strip for two decades until the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Israeli military captured the territory.

What happens after the war?

There would also be no guarantee that Palestinians who fled would ever be able to return to Gaza, Harb says. In 1948, in the first Arab-Israeli war that followed the formation of Israel as a state, and again in 1967, Palestinians were "kicked out" of their homes, "never to return," he says.

"If they do go to Sinai, how is the regime going to accommodate them there? And [is] there any ironclad commitment that they would return to Gaza, given that the Gaza Strip ... has already been destroyed?" Harb says.

So far, there doesn't appear to be any specific plan to make this happen, Kaldas says. "Certainly, I think that there are people within the Israeli government that hope to still precipitate enough of a crisis to make it happen."

Meanwhile, Cairo is in a deepening debt crisis and in need of external financing through the next fiscal year of at least $41.5 billion, according to a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That could be used as leverage, according to Rabi. He says there's talk in Arab media that Egypt might concede to helping Palestinians in Gaza resettle in a third country, "as long as there are destinations that would say in advance that they are ready and willing to absorb [Palestinians] into their territory."

"I don't know if it could be Qatar or Saudi Arabia or whatever, but not to Egypt," he says.

But such a move would call into question the entire legitimacy of Palestinian self-rule, experts say.

As a result, Jordanian King Abdullah II has echoed a phrase also used by Egypt and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Jordan already has a large Palestinian population. Accepting Palestinian refugees, they say, is a "red line" they won't cross.

As for Palestinians, despite everything that has happened, many don't want to leave, according to Kaldas. "They know that the odds that the Israelis would let them back home after the fighting ends [are] ... unlikely."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.