Expelling Palestinians From Gaza Is Playing With Fire


Among the many risks inherent in the ongoing war in Gaza, perhaps the most dangerous has been the potential for broader escalation involving other regional fronts, pitting Israel and U.S. forces against Iranian-backed proxies in south Lebanon, Yemen, and Syria as well as Iraq. Yet, no less serious are the potential spillover effects of the conflict on Egypt. In particular, the prospect of the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai constitutes perhaps one of the most destabilizing potential outcomes of the conflict. Such a scenario would pose not only a serious challenge to Egypt’s security but would also constitute a potential game-changer in the configuration of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

The Biden administration seems to understand the dangers entailed in the forceful transfer of Palestinians from Gaza, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling it a non-starter. However, the mounting humanitarian crisis in Gaza, coupled with the strident voices within Israel advocating for the expulsion of Palestinians from the territory, means that the administration should be prepared to continue forcefully pushing back. 



A Not-So-Hidden Agenda

Since the onset of the war, the signals coming out of Israel gave clear indication that the forced displacement of Palestinians in Gaza across the border into Egypt was indeed an explicit objective. Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right National Religious Party, said that he welcomed the idea of “voluntary emigration of Gaza Arabs to countries around the world,” while advocating for the reestablishment of Jewish settlements in the territory. 

While Smotrich did not mention Egypt specifically, other Israeli statements were less circumspect. Former Israel Defense Force Brig. Gen. Amir Avivi stated in an interview that Palestinians in Gaza need to leave the enclave and “move south, out to the Sinai Peninsula.” Similarly, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Dany Ayalon offered that to spare the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, they should evacuate to Egypt — which would “have to accept them.” 

The most explicit Israeli articulation of this objective was revealed in a leaked policy paper published on Oct. 13, drafted by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry headed by Gila Gamliel. The paper recommended evacuating Palestinian civilians from Gaza to Sinai, which it considered an “executable option” that would yield positive long-term results for Israel. The report explains that tent cities will first be established in Sinai until a humanitarian zone and cities in the north are constructed. Moreover, “A sterile zone of several kilometers should be created within Egypt, and the return of the population to activities/residences near the border with Israel should not be allowed.” 

Besides the pronouncements of current and former officials, the idea of displacing Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt has been actively promoted by a number of Israeli policy circles. The Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, an Israeli think tank headed by former national security advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, published a paper shortly after the outbreak of the war stating that “There is at the moment a unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip in coordination with the Egyptian government.” 

Policymakers in Washington are also reportedly considering supporting this option. A draft bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposes the channeling of financial assistance to neighboring countries who take in refugees from Gaza displaced by the war — primary among them would be Egypt. Additionally, rumors of debt forgiveness for Egypt in exchange for accepting refugees from Gaza have been circulating since the beginning of Israel’s war. 

To quell the growing concern in Cairo and Western capitals regarding these pronouncements, the Netanyahu government issued several fervent denials refuting the notion that the forced transfer of Palestinians from Gaza reflected official Israeli policy. However, this is belied by the quiet diplomatic activity Israel reportedly carried out to pressure Egypt into allowing Palestinians in Gaza to enter Sinai. According to a New York Times report, Israel approached several foreign governments with the idea of a “humanitarian initiative that would allow civilians to temporarily escape the perils of Gaza for refugee camps in the Sinai Desert” as part of an overall objective to “thin” the Palestinian population in the territory “to a minimum.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statement that Israel is actively seeking third countries to absorb Palestinians from Gaza amounts to an explicit admission of what has clearly emerged as a central Israeli policy objective in its war on Gaza. 

Egypt’s Bright Red Line

For its part, Egypt has categorically rejected any and all notions of the forced displacement of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and especially Gaza. President Abdel Fatah al Sisi has repeatedly warned against the possibility of the “relocation of Palestinians to Egypt or Jordan.” For both countries, pushing back against this scenario constitutes a key priority in their diplomacy towards the conflict. 

Sisi framed the issue as “a red line for Egypt that will not be permitted.” Similarly, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, reacting to the Israeli Intelligence Ministry’s report, stated that “Egyptians are ready to sacrifice millions of lives so that nobody approaches a grain of sand” in Sinai. The warnings emanating from Cairo went beyond Egypt’s political leadership. In an indication that the military was prepared to deal with an emergency contingency — presumably including the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza — Commander of the Second Field Army Mohamed Rabie said that the armed forces are “highly prepared to undertake any mission assigned to them to protect Egypt’s national security at the northeastern strategic direction.”

The rationale behind Egypt’s steadfast position can be traced back to two cardinal considerations. The first is security. Sisi candidly explained that the mass influx of refugees into the Sinai would inevitably entail transferring the locus of Palestinian resistance against the Israeli occupation from Gaza to Egypt itself, thereby making the Sinai “the base for launching operations against Israel.” 

The second consideration is moral and relates to Egypt’s historic attachment to the Palestinian question: preventing a second Nakba, the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land. In his statement at the Cairo Peace Summit on Oct. 21, Sisi affirmed “Egypt’s vehement rejection of the forced displacement of the Palestinians and their transfer to Egyptian lands in Sinai.” An important distinction was drawn by Sisi in this regard. Whereas Egypt currently hosts millions of refugees from various regional conflict zones including Sudan, Libya, Syria, and Iraq, agreeing to the relocation of Palestinians into Egypt would in effect lead to their permanent displacement, thus marking “the last gasp in the liquidation of the Palestinian cause.”

These two considerations overlap considerably in the context of Egypt’s overall calculus towards the unfolding war in Gaza. Developments in Gaza have long entailed significant security challenges for Egypt in the Sinai, through a complex nexus of cross-border illicit trafficking, terrorist networks, and militant ideology. Among the many spillover effects of this nexus has been not only terrorist attacks against Egyptian civilian and military targets within the Sinai, but also repeated cross-border attacks against Israel.

Against this backdrop, the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza would entail broadening the zone of conflict between Hamas and Israel into northern Sinai, a situation that would pose truly vexing security and political dilemmas for Cairo. Suppressing by force Palestinian resistance activities from its territory would make Egypt complicit in Israel’s policy of bringing about a second Nakba. Conversely, acquiescing to the reality of hosting a Palestinian refugee population would not only entail significant security risks for Egypt, but would likely prompt Israeli military reprisals on Egyptian territory. This would undermine the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, as the Sinai gradually transformed into a source of insecurity for both countries. 

It is this sober assessment that underpins Egypt’s overall posture towards the conflict. Since the start of the war, Cairo has engaged on a number of tracks simultaneously: averting a humanitarian disaster in Gaza by pushing for greater humanitarian aid, working towards a lasting ceasefire, and engaging in the complex mediation efforts to broker a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas. Diplomatically, Cairo has impressed upon Washington the seriousness of its concerns regarding expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza, with both President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris affirming to Sisi that “under no circumstances will the United States permit the forced relocation of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank.”

Pushing Gaza into Sinai

These U.S. reassurances have been welcome in Cairo, but deep concerns remain. This stems, in large part, from Israel’s long history of trying to solve the Gaza problem in Egypt. According to Israeli pronouncements, the displacement of Palestinians from northern Gaza to the south, and eventually out of Gaza altogether, is meant to be a temporary measure intended for humanitarian purposes in order to spare innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire between Israel and Hamas. However, the origins of this idea go beyond the circumstances of the current war and have a long pedigree in Israel’s strategic thought. After its conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 war, Israel contemplated the formal annexation of the latter with plans for the resettlement of Gaza’s refugee population in northern Sinai, also under Israeli occupation as the result of the war. 

Over a decade later, and after Sinai’s return, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was reportedly asked by the United States to take in Palestinian refugees from Lebanon following the Israeli invasion in 1982. When this information was revealed in a BBC Arabic report in 2017, Mubarak stated that he had categorically rejected this proposal. Mubarak went on to reveal that this was not the only time that Egypt was made such an offer, stating that Israel had presented a similar proposal in 2010 for the settlement of Palestinians in Sinai as part of a land swap with Egypt. 

The clearest Israeli articulation of this approach came from retired Israel Defense Force Maj. Gen. Giora Eiland. In 2004, as national security advisor to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Eiland proposed the expansion of the Gaza Strip into Sinai. Eiland subsequently developed this approach in the form of a detailed proposal to explore “regional alternatives” to the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This would entail a Palestinian-Jordanian federated state, and an expanded land area for Gaza to be achieved through land swaps between Egypt and Israel in Sinai and the Negev desert. 

The logic underpinning this approach is one that Israeli strategists find both simple and compelling. As clearly stated by Eiland, “Because Israel and the Palestinians have to share a parcel of land that is too small … the only real contribution that the Arab countries can offer is exactly what the Israelis and Palestinians need — more land.”

It was this logic that sustained the idea of transferring the Gaza problem to Egypt throughout Israel’s numerous rounds of conflict with Hamas beginning in 2008, despite Egypt’s adamant rejection. In 2017, Gamliel said in an interview that the only viable option for a Palestinian state was outside of the West Bank, naming Sinai in particular. Others who have voiced similar positions today have also done so in the past. Avivi, for example, co-wrote a proposal in 2016 for a think tank, dubbed “The New State Solution,” which proposes the creation of a Palestinian state in Gaza “that would be expanded southwards, to incorporate approximately 10% of the northern, coastal area of the Sinai Peninsula.”

Containing the Fallout From the Wreckage of Gaza

Nearly three months into its war against Hamas, Israel has remained steadfastly evasive in defining a post-war endgame, in the face of growing international and especially U.S. pressure to discuss the “day after” in Gaza. However, the absence of an official post-war strategy should not divert attention from the fact that Israel is already imposing a new reality on the ground. 

Israel’s military campaign has effectively severed Gaza in half between north and south, resulting in the depopulation of the north — which is now rendered uninhabitable given the extent of the destruction to civilian infrastructure. The conditions of severe overcrowding that now prevail in southern Gaza threaten to compound what is already a dire humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by what seems to be an Israeli strategy of deliberate starvation with the threat of famine now looming over Palestinians in the territory. Moreover, Israel’s rejection of the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza under any scenario threatens to create a vacuum of governance that will only exacerbate these dire conditions. 

The absence of any viable governance framework, the likely continuation of military clashes against Israel’s continued military presence in Gaza, and the resulting reluctance on the part of the international community to engage in any sustained post-war reconstruction efforts will render any preparations for the “day after” meaningless. Gaza will emerge from this conflict an impoverished territory, burdened by a vulnerable population of internally displaced persons acutely dependent on international assistance, all against the backdrop of a deepening humanitarian catastrophe. 

Egypt will be the most exposed to growing fallout from the war in Gaza. The prospect of forced displacement of Palestinians into Egypt looms large over what will inevitably emerge as a highly unstable post-war outcome. Whether this scenario unfolds as the result of direct military measures, or as consequence of the mounting humanitarian pressures in Gaza, may be a distinction without a difference. The harsh reality imposed by Israel in Gaza has produced a crisis situation that threatens to explode in Egypt’s direction, especially as Israel intensifies its military operations in the south near the Rafah border with Egypt. 

Such an eventuality will have far-reaching effects beyond the current war. Israel’s proclivity to shift the Gaza problem onto Egypt reflects a cavalier disregard for Cairo’s security concerns. If realized, this scenario will likely undermine Egypt’s readiness to cooperate in addressing the post-war situation in Gaza, and severely damage Israel’s relationship with the largest Arab state. It would not be implausible to assume that a mass influx of Palestinians into the Sinai would be construed by Cairo as a hostile act by Israel, with potentially serious implications for the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Creating a Palestinian refugee population in northern Sinai will undermine the stability that has characterized the Egyptian-Israeli border for decades and create growing political pressures in Egypt to reassess its relationship with Israel. 

Beyond Egypt, the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza will establish a dangerous precedent for the West Bank where the notion of mass expulsion of Palestinians has now become mainstream in Israel’s political discourse under the current far-right government. Moreover, it would radicalize Palestinian politics, legitimizing Hamas’ narrative of resistance, and possibly give rise to other groups in Palestine and across the region espousing violent resistance against Israeli occupation, all while lending further validation to the axis of resistance led by Iran. 


In many ways, the war in Gaza reflects a dangerous trend that has been playing out over the last three decades in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With the gradual demise of the two-state solution, the pressures of the conflict are being externalized to its immediate neighbors — Egypt and Jordan — and regionalized to the broader Middle East. 

How the United States handles the post-war wreckage of Gaza will therefore be critical. Despite its declared opposition to forced transfer of Palestinians, the Biden administration’s reluctance thus far to exercise any leverage to moderate Israel’s military excesses in the conduct of the war means that its declared position may not be enough to stave off such a scenario. If Washington does not forcefully push back against the prospect of Israel’s ethnic cleansing in Gaza, it may lead to dangerous consequences that will resonate far beyond Gaza itself for decades to come. 



Karim Haggag is professor of practice at the American University in Cairo and non-resident fellow at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Omar Auf is associate editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.

Image: Israel Defense Force