October 17, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Israel war: Why wouldn’t Egypt want Gazan refugees?

October 17, 2023 | Washington Examiner

Israel war: Why wouldn’t Egypt want Gazan refugees?

As Israel prepares to invade Gaza to destroy the terrorist group Hamas, Jerusalem is calling on civilians living in the coastal enclave to seek refuge in Egypt. Cairo, however, has denied entry to Gazans and has taken additional measures to secure the Egypt-Gaza border. Egypt’s refusal stems from its long-standing concerns about Palestinian resettlement on its territory. But Cairo is missing the big picture: Egypt can better advance its long-term interests by aligning with Israel on the Gaza issue.

Egypt’s approach to the Gaza crisis resembles its policy on past conflicts between Israel and Hamas. The Egyptians have released statements blaming the “Israeli occupation” for provoking Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, calling for a two-state solution, and urging the parties to agree to a ceasefire to allow for deliveries of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, Egyptian media are mobilizing the public against the Jewish state to distract from Egypt’s economic woes and to boost President Abdel Fattah el Sissi’s waning popularity.

Cairo’s main concern is to prevent a refugee crisis that could spill over to its territory and “liquidate” the Palestinian issue. The Egyptians have long believed that the Jewish state wants to resettle Palestinians in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as an alternative to the two-state solution. On Thursday, Sissi declared that although his country already hosts 9 million immigrants and foreigners from various countries in the Middle East and Africa, Egypt will not accept Gazans. “It’s important for [Gaza’s] people to stay steadfast and exist on its land,” Sissi asserted.

Cairo also worries that hosting Palestinian refugees could pose a national security threat. Operatives from Hamas and other Gazan terrorist groups could infiltrate by posing as refugees and then launch attacks inside Egypt. Indeed, in the past, Hamas cooperated with the Islamic State to move weapons from Iran and Libya through the peninsula. Previous bloody clashes in Palestinian refugee camps in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon don’t inspire confidence. In addition, if the Palestinian refugees were to attack Israel from Egypt, it could strain Egyptian-Israeli relations and invite Israeli military action on Egyptian territory.

To assuage Egypt’s concerns, Israeli Ambassador to Cairo Amira Oron denied that Israel intends for long-term Palestinian resettlement in Sinai. Instead, Jerusalem seeks to destroy the Hamas terrorist group, which took control of Gaza shortly after Israel withdrew from the enclave in 2005. Gazan refugees will be able to return once the war ends.

Israel hopes that eliminating Hamas will open the door for new possibilities within the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority, which briefly ruled Gaza before Hamas seized power, could return. Palestinian politician Mohamed Dahlan, who is backed by the United Arab Emirates, could be another option. On Sunday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas distanced himself from Hamas, perhaps eyeing a post-war settlement. By allowing moderate actors to retake power in Gaza, Hamas’s destruction could facilitate eventual Palestinian-Israeli peace.

In the long term, the destruction of Hamas would bolster not only Israel’s security but Egypt’s as well. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement founded in Egypt that the Sissi regime regards as a threat. Hamas, like various other Islamist groups around the Middle East, has received support from Iran, as well as Egypt’s rivals Turkey and Qatar.

Cairo’s business-as-usual approach fails to appreciate this bigger picture. Egypt would be better off backing Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas and working with Israel and other friendly countries to devise creative proposals to deal with Gazan refugees and post-Hamas governance in the enclave. For example, Cairo could help facilitate the establishment of a U.N.-sponsored Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip, which could then be rebuilt using Western funds. American diplomats should make these arguments as they engage with their Egyptian counterparts in the weeks ahead.

For Egypt, the crisis in Gaza presents threats but also opportunities. If Cairo is smart enough to seize them, it can bolster Egypt’s security, weaken the influence of destructive regional actors, and help achieve a better life for Palestinians in Gaza.

Haisam Hassanein is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he analyzes Israel’s relations with Arab and Muslim countries. Follow him on Twitter @HaisamHassanei1.


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