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South into the Sinai: Will Israel Force Palestinians Out of Gaza?

While previous Israeli governments have tried to depopulate Gaza, today there is a growing momentum to carry out mass transfer—with American support.

Published on October 31, 2023

Since the October 7 Hamas attacks, Israel has sustained an unprecedentedly brutal assault on the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has stated that its aim is to eliminate Hamas and seems to be preparing for a full ground invasion. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the war is in pursuit of a second goal: the mass expulsion of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Israeli politicians and officials from the Israeli defense establishment have called for a second nakba and urged the military to flatten Gaza. Some suggest that Palestinians should flee Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt and seek refuge in the Sinai Peninsula, including former Brigadier General Amir Avivi and the former Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon

Avivi and Ayalon insist that evacuating Palestinians out of Gaza is simply a humanitarian measure, protecting civilians while Israel conducts its military operations. But other reports suggest that Palestinians would be permanently resettled outside of Gaza, in an act of ethnic cleansing. On October 17, the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy—an Israeli think tank founded and led by former defense and security officials—published a paper urging the Israeli government to take advantage of the “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip,” and resettle Palestinians in Cairo with the assistance of the Egyptian government. Separately, a leaked document from the Israeli Intelligence Ministry recommended forcibly resettling 2.2 million Palestinians from Gaza in the Northern Sinai and constructing a buffer zone along the Israeli border to prevent their return.  

The proposals are only the latest in a long history of Israeli plans to depopulate Gaza and resettle Palestinians in the Sinai. After the Six-Day war, the Israeli military launched a deadly campaign against Palestinian resistance movements in Gaza’s refugee camps; 16,000 Palestinians whose homes Israel destroyed were transferred to Israeli-occupied al-Arish, while 12,000 relatives of Palestinian fedayeen were moved to new camps in the desert. More recently, before Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the head of the Israeli National Security proposed that Egypt accept a large percentage of Gaza’s population in exchange for land in Southern Israel, which was rejected by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But this time, the United States seems to be mobilizing political and financial support for Israeli transfer schemes. On October 11, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed that the United States was working with Egypt and Israel to create a “humanitarian corridor” in the Sinai for Palestinian civilians fleeing Gaza. Then on October 20, the White House sent Congress an official funding request to “address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries.” President Joe Biden has since stated that he recognizes the importance of preventing Palestinian displacement. But as one analyst noted, the funding request was a clear indication that the Biden administration was giving Israel a “green light” to carry out ethnic cleansing.

Today’s plans for mass transfer thus bear a closer historical resemblance to the 1948 nakba and its aftermath. After 200,000 Palestinian refugees had fled from historic Palestine to Gaza by March 1949, the United States pushed for a UN proposal to resettle tens of thousands in the Sinai desert. Led by John B. Blandford, a veteran American policymaker, the newly-established United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) conducted surveys in the early 1950s to explore desert reclamation schemes in the Sinai, immediately east of the Suez Canal, where resettled Palestinian refugees would participate in new agricultural development projects and “reintegrate” into the Egyptian economy. For Blandford, this plan would offer a shortcut to solve the Palestinian refugee problem: once they were economically secure, he believed, Palestinians would no longer want to return to their original homes. The United States allocated the bulk of the funding for the project, estimated at $30 million in 1955. 

In public statements at the UN, Egypt and other Arab states rejected all “schemes for the settlement of Arab refugees involving the reclamation of deserts," and insisted that the resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem must be “must be sought in Palestine, and nowhere else.” But behind the scenes, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government worked closely with UNRWA to advance the Sinai resettlement scheme, which they saw as in their own national interest: a large-scale agricultural development project, supported by foreign capital, that would significantly benefit the Egyptian economy at a time of financial and political instability.

Over the past few weeks, Egyptian President Abdelfattah El-Sisi has resisted Israeli and American pressure to allow Palestinians to evacuate through Rafah into the Sinai, affirming that Egypt rejects “the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land.” Egypt also fears that a large refugee encampment could become a new base for Palestinian resistance operations, which could drag Egypt into a potential military confrontation with Israel. But in exchange for accepting Palestinians from Gaza, the US has reportedly offered Cairo economic incentives at a time when Egypt faces an extreme debt crisis. It is hard to see how Sisi could help displace Palestinians without facing intense political blowback—and yet the prospect of debt relief is also difficult to ignore. And with recent crackdowns on local media outlets, it is clear that, at a minimum, the Egyptian government wants to stifle all domestic discourse about resettlement plans.

In 1955, Palestinians across Gaza rose up, in what became known as the March Intifada, and forced UNRWA, the US, and Egypt to renounce resettlement schemes. Today, as Palestinians in Gaza struggle just to stay alive, and as American and European leaders turn a blind eye to their suffering, it is unclear whether any kind of political protest can prevent a second nakba. 

Jonathan Adler is the Assistant English Editor of Sada and a Hurford Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His writing has been published in New Lines Magazine, +972, and Middle East Eye, among others. Follow him on X @JRAdler4.