Egypt, the Gaza War, and Fears of Another Nakba

Like most Arab countries, Egypt was stunned by the conflagration ignited by last October’s Hamas attack inside southern Israel and subsequent Israeli onslaught against Gaza. To Cairo, the war has delivered not just a vast humanitarian crisis, but the potential destruction of the regional order from which Egypt has benefited politically and economically since the signing of the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978. In particular, the growing possibility of a potential major refugee outflow from Gaza into Egypt, one forced upon the Palestinians by Israel, presents Egypt with an existential threat. With a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict now farther away than ever, and prospects for a broader Middle East war growing greater by the day, Cairo has been forced to play a much more prominent diplomatic role, with significantly higher stakes, than it has in many years.

It was not always this hard. For decades Egypt has positioned itself as a diplomatic heavyweight within the Arab world, in large part because of its leadership role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. It curried favor with the United States by repeatedly using its good offices to effect truces after periodic blowups between Hamas and Israel. Egypt also has maintained an official belief in the logic of a final political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis based on a two-state solution, a hallmark of US Middle East policy since the Bill Clinton presidency. For a long time, this elder statesman role was the political sweet spot for Cairo, winning its government respect and rewards without the heavy lifting and political risks required to actually bring about a final Palestine-Israel settlement. The October 7 attack, and the devastating Israeli response, have changed everything for Cairo.

Forced Transfer of Palestinians: Immediate Worry with a Long History

Since the beginning of the Israeli offensive on Gaza, Egypt has been buffeted by a mounting sense of crisis, with regional political implications and, even more worrisome, implications for its own security and stability. Early suggestions from prominent former Israeli officials that Palestinians should be allowed to cross the border into Egypt temporarily, supposedly for humanitarian reasons, were seen as stalking horses for a far more sinister aim. Egypt has a long historical memory, as do the Palestinians themselves. Both worry that a displacement of massive numbers of Gazans, however temporary it is alleged to be, will become permanent, another iteration of the 1948 Nakba (“Catastrophe”) that saw between 750,000 to one million Palestinians driven from their homes during the war that created Israel.

The worry in Cairo is all too real. Pro-expulsion views within Israel are not new, but appear to be on the rise.

The worry in Cairo is all too real. Pro-expulsion views within Israel are not new, but appear to be on the rise. Right-wing extremist Israeli cabinet members Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have both endorsed the idea of expelling Palestinians from Gaza. On October 18, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi struck back against such views in a speech that strongly denounced any Israeli plans to deport Gaza’s population to Egypt. He argued, perhaps with justification, that a forced population transfer would end the possibility of a Palestinian state and succeed only in transforming Sinai into a center for anti-Israel militancy, with serious consequences for Egypt’s own security. Egypt likely fears that Hamas militants could infiltrate into Egypt with civilians driven into Sinai and set up a new base there from which to attack Israel, a development that could produce at least two dire threats for Egypt. Israel could strike Hamas inside Egyptian territory, thereby jeopardizing the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. And Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, could use Sinai as a platform from which to challenge the Egyptian regime, which has ruthlessly suppressed the Brotherhood since el-Sisi’s 2013 military coup removed the group from power.

Events in Israel did little to assuage Egypt’s concerns. Shortly after the president’s speech, an Israeli Ministry of Intelligence “concept paper” on population transfer leaked to an Israeli news website. The plan proposed moving refugees into tent cities in Sinai before permanent construction of new cities to house them and creating a “security zone” along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent Palestinians from returning.

This plan does not, at least at this point, reflect official Israeli policy. But a conference organized by Israeli settlers in late January at which participants demanded the resettlement of Gaza was attended by more than a dozen government ministers, providing one more indication that the ethnic cleansing of Gaza may have some political momentum. (Israel in the past has repeatedly raised the idea of pushing Gazans into Sinai. In the 2000s Egypt firmly rejected an Israeli plan—the so-called Eiland Plan—to resettle Gazans in northern Sinai in exchange for debt relief, new aid, and other sweeteners. Former President Hosni Mubarak claimed that he had rebuffed other such proposals from Tel Aviv. The recrudescence of the idea at this particular juncture makes it especially ominous from an Egyptian point of view.)

The hardline government of Netanyahu has also inflamed Egypt’s suspicions about Israel’s war aims through its alarmingly vague goals in Gaza.

The hardline government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also inflamed Egypt’s suspicions about Israel’s war aims through its alarmingly vague goals in Gaza. While Netanyahu touts “total victory” over Hamas as his desired end goal, he has offered few details as to how that will be achieved or what it will look like. Just how Gaza will be administered after the war is a blank spot as well. Netanyahu has rejected a Biden administration proposal to allow a reformed Palestinian Authority to take charge, and vowed to maintain Israeli security control over Gaza for the foreseeable future.

This apparently includes establishing Israel’s control over the Philadephi Corridor, a buffer zone along Gaza’s southern border currently administered on each side of the line by Egypt and Hamas, respectively. An Egyptian government spokesman has warned that an Israeli takeover of the corridor could stand “in violation of the security agreements and protocols signed between [Israel]  and Egypt” and that “any Israeli move in this direction will lead to a serious and grave threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations.” Egyptian officials believe that an Israeli operation to retake the area could result in the massive flight of Gazans into Sinai. This is one more indication, Egypt worries, of Israel’s real intentions.

What Gaza’s Destruction Means for Egypt

The scale of destruction on the ground in Gaza has only reinforced the now widely-held view that Israel intends to render the enclave uninhabitable in order to force the Palestinians out.

The numbers speak for themselves: World Bank estimates reported in the Wall Street Journal recorded that as of December 12, the war had damaged or destroyed 77 percent of health facilities, 72 percent of municipal services such as parks, courts and libraries, 68 percent of telecommunications infrastructure, and 76 percent of commercial sites, as well as 20 percent of agricultural land, 70 percent of homes, and half of Gaza’s buildings overall. Some 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.2. million residents have been displaced. Israel is also pursuing a campaign of “controlled demolitions” in Gaza border areas, apparently to create a buffer zone to separate Israel more completely from Gaza.

Israel has defined “legitimate” targets as including vast swaths of civilian infrastructure, apartment blocks, private homes, and more.

Virtually all of this is intentional. An investigation by the Israeli online newsmagazine +972 found that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) targeting, supercharged by an artificial intelligence program known as Habsora, is using an “expanded authorization for bombing non-military targets [and] the loosening of constraints regarding expected civilian casualties” that has contributed hugely to the scale of destruction and Palestinian deaths, now over 27,000. Israel has defined “legitimate” targets as including vast swaths of civilian infrastructure, apartment blocks, private homes, and more. “Right now we’re focused on what causes maximum damage,” IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said in October. Israel appears to be implementing the so-called Dahiya Doctrine, developed in response to the 2006 war with Hezbollah but now apparently current IDF policy. As former IDF commander Gadi Eisenkot, now a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, explained it in 2008, “We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective, these are military bases….This is a plan that has already been authorized.”

These destructive actions are a warning that worse may be to come, and not just in Gaza. Jordan is casting a wary eye on growing settler violence in the occupied West Bank, abetted by the Israeli army, which has sharply increased its own attacks on alleged Palestinian militants as well as civilians, including through the use of air power. Both Cairo and Amman are bracing themselves for a potential influx of refugees that could dwarf anything seen in 1948.

Egypt’s Domestic Political Concerns

The tumult and terror in Gaza have domestic implications for Cairo as well. El-Sisi has handled the internal political situation carefully, aware that disallowing popular expressions of anger about Israel’s destruction of Gaza could refocus discontent toward the regime, while cognizant that political protests can get out of hand. The government itself helped organize a number of pro-Palestinian protests, which critics said was a cynical attempt to channel popular anger over Gaza into support for the regime and el-Sisi personally in the lead-up to last December’s presidential election.

A cause with as much popular support as Gaza could quickly turn into widespread anger about el-Sisi’s repression, poor economic management, and other sources of simmering discontent.

The government knows, however, that a cause with as much popular support as Gaza could quickly turn into widespread anger about el-Sisi’s repression, poor economic management, and other sources of simmering discontent. Last fall, dozens of protesters at pro-Gaza demonstrations were arrested after they began chanting anti-Sisi slogans. The government has every intention of maintaining its usual tight grip on public protests of all kinds, but this may become more challenging the longer the war in Gaza wears on.

Scrambling for a Solution

Egypt has found itself forced to counter these concerning developments with a conceptual peace plan that it hopes will serve as the basis for a permanent ceasefire and perhaps negotiations for a long-term settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The plan, which was developed jointly by Egypt and Qatar, was presented to the United States, Israel, and Hamas on Christmas Day. It involves pauses in the fighting to enable staged releases of remaining hostages held by Hamas (approximately 130 people) as well as unspecified numbers of Palestinians prisoners held by Israel (Palestinian authorities say Israel is holding about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners on security charges). Throughout the phased truces and prisoner releases, Egypt would conduct negotiations to unify Palestinian political factions, with an eye to appointing a “government of experts” that could rule Gaza and the West Bank prior to elections for a new Palestinian government.

Neither Israel nor Hamas appear keen to proceed on this basis. Hamas is not eager to give up hostages in exchange for anything less than a permanent ceasefire; moreover, it does not want to see its political power potentially diluted through unification with the existing Palestinian Authority in some form, or by elections. (Hamas may not have much to worry about on the latter score; polling shows the group’s popularity has jumped since the October 7 attack.) For his part, Netanyahu appears loathe to sanction a ceasefire of any kind or indeed to end the war even in exchange for the return of the hostages, absent the “defeat” of Hamas. Netanyahu emphatically rejected the latest iteration of that idea on January 22.

Egypt and other key Arab states remain undeterred, or, more to the point, are becoming more desperate. A joint proposal submitted to the United States and Israel in late January, spearheaded by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, goes further than December’s Egypt-Qatar version. It is a work in progress, envisioning an irreversible path to a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi recognition and normalization of diplomatic ties with Israel. This plan too has met with Israel’s initial rejection, although it has yet to be finalized.

Cairo: Going Along to Get Along?

Despite its protestations, there are scenarios in which Egypt might allow transfer of large numbers of Gazans into Sinai. Since 2013 Cairo has forcibly evicted tens of thousands of its own northern Sinai residents and destroyed well over 12,000 homes and more than 14,000 acres of agricultural lands, mainly in the el-Arish and Rafah areas, ostensibly to create a buffer zone to help Egyptian security forces combat Wilayat Sina, an Islamic State affiliate. Before October 7, Egypt reportedly had been developing plans to set aside a portion of this area for investment and industrial purposes, with an eye to bringing Palestinians from Gaza to work and potentially live there. (In 2019 the government also announced plans to build a “New Baer al-Abd” city near el-Arish.) Little construction or development has taken place so far, but the plans intriguingly suggest possible Egyptian openness to absorbing some of the Palestinian population of Gaza after all.

If sufficient incentives were offered by the international community—and maybe enough pressure brought to bear by Israel and the United States—could Egypt be convinced to accept some new form of the Eiland Plan, despite its well-advertised political principles and security fears? Perhaps. Cairo would demand the highest possible price in the form of debt relief, increased economic and security aid, and perhaps other concessions. It is very unlikely under present conditions, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

What Next?

The war in Gaza and Netanyahu’s diplomatic rejectionism have seriously strained Egypt-Israel relations. Egypt is miffed that Israel has rebuffed Cairo’s attempts to get it to address its concerns about the war, particularly that of the possible forced transfer of Palestinians. As a result, el-Sisi has repeatedly refused to take calls from Netanyahu in the last few weeks, adding to the tension between the two leaders. What will likely make things worse is the expected Israeli offensive into Rafah and the prospect that it would force large numbers of Palestinians across the border into Sinai, creating a fait accompli for Egypt.

While Egypt and Israel are likely to maintain the current “cold peace,” a fracture is still possible, and may be more thinkable now that everything—population transfers, broader regional conflict, violations of sovereignty—are on the table. For the moment, Cairo sees intensive diplomacy as the only reasonable solution—much more so than the unreasonable solutions that it fears may be forced upon it as the situation deteriorates.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Anas Mohammed