Will Israel try to force Gaza's population into Egypt?

A man inspects the damage inside the house where at least two Palestinian men were killed overnight in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Picture: Marco Longari / AFP

A man inspects the damage inside the house where at least two Palestinian men were killed overnight in Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Picture: Marco Longari / AFP

Published Dec 14, 2023


With most Gazans displaced and Israeli forces pushing deeper into the Palestinian territory, UN officials and Middle East leaders have raised the spectre of its residents being expelled to Egypt.

That scenario evokes dark historical memories of what the Arab world calls the "Nakba" or catastrophe -- the mass displacement of Palestinians during Israel's creation 75 years ago.

Israel has vowed the destroy Hamas over the October 7 attack that Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people and saw 240 hostages taken, and the war has since killed over 18,600 Gazans, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

More than two months of fighting have forced nearly 85 percent of Gaza's 2.4 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations, with many fleeing to the now overcrowded far-southern city of Rafah.

Here is a look at the controversial question around the future of Gazans:

Who is raising the alarm?

Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, warned Wednesday that pushing Gazans across the frontier would be "extremely destabilising for Egypt".

"It's very important to insist that this evacuation of people beyond (the border) must not be promoted, must not be advanced, forced," the UNHCR chief told journalists in Geneva.

Speaking in Qatar on Sunday, UN chief Antonio Guterres had also warned of "increased pressure for mass displacement into Egypt".

His remarks echoed those of Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, who warned "the developments we are witnessing point to attempts to move Palestinians into Egypt".

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, the UNRWA chief said the unfolding reality followed widespread destruction in northern Gaza and Israel ordering civilians in the southern city of Khan Yunis to flee even further towards the border.

Egypt, Jordan and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas have previously warned against attempts to force Gazans out of the coastal territory, while Israel and the United States have dismissed the idea.

Is Israel aiming to push Gazans out?

"There is not, never was and never will be an Israeli plan to move the residents of Gaza to Egypt," a spokesperson for the Israeli defence ministry office responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs told AFP.

Some members of the Israeli government have, however, publicly supported the idea of Gazans leaving the Palestinian territory en masse.

Writing on Facebook last month, extreme-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he welcomed the "voluntary migration of Gaza Arabs to the countries of the world".

Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel said that one "option" after the war would be "to promote the voluntary resettlement of Palestinians in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons, outside of the Strip".

Former Israeli officials have suggested in TV interviews that Egypt could build vast tent cities in its Sinai desert, with international funding.

What's the legal view?

Expelling civilians is banned under the Geneva Conventions, which form the core of international humanitarian law.

"If it's done in the context of an armed conflict, then it's a war crime," said Sheila Paylan, an international human rights lawyer and former advisor to the United Nations.

Under the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the "deportation or forcible transfer of population" is listed as a crime against humanity.

Leaders do not have to declare that people must leave in order for it to count as a forced transfer, Paylan said: "If you make the conditions impossible for people to live, then they have no choice."

There have been multiple successful convictions over the forcible displacement of civilians, she said, including at the ICC, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the Special Court of Sierra Leone.

What's the historical perspective?

Abbas has said driving out Gaza's people would amount to a "second Nakba", referring to the forced displacement of more than 760,000 Palestinians during the war that coincided with Israel's creation in 1948.

Their descendents make up the majority of Gaza residents, while nearly six million Palestinian refugees in the region are registered with UNRWA.

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, there were further displacements.

What do other countries say?

Days after the outbreak of war, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Gazans must "stay steadfast and remain on their land".

Egypt was the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.

Speaking at the same Doha conference as the UN chief, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi decried Israel's "systematic effort... to empty Gaza (of) its people".

Israel's top ally, the United States, has supported the military campaign but said Gazans should not be forced out.

Following conversations with leaders across the Middle East, top US diplomat Antony Blinken in October said the idea of pushing Palestinians into Egypt "is a nonstarter".

"We do not support it," Blinken said in an interview in Cairo with the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network.

Agence France-Presse