Israel’s ongoing war in Gaza is pushing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians towards the Egyptian border at Rafah. There, refugees are crammed into small, inadequate shelters and disease is spreading – the United Nations has called the conditions “extreme”.
Since Israel launched its offensive in response to Hamas’s bloody assault on Israeli communities on 7 October, over 1.93 million, 85 per cent of Gaza’s population, have been forcibly displaced, the majority of whom were pushed southwards in the first phase of Israel’s offensive. With the Palestinian death toll now exceeding 18,600 – around 70 per cent of whom are women and children – and Israeli officials indicating that the fighting could drag on for months, many Palestinians are now left with no choice but to flee Gaza.
But a mass exodus from Gaza into Egypt is a worse-case scenario both for Palestinians and the government in Cairo. Many Palestinians fear that if they were forced into Egypt, Israel may never allow them to return to Gaza. Around 70 per cent of the population in Gaza are themselves refugees forcibly displaced from present-day Israel during the 1948 Nakba. As for Egypt, it has little capacity nor political will to absorb large numbers of Palestinian refugees, which risk destabilising the country and could have wide-reaching consequences for Egypt’s European partners.
Since 7 October, Israel’s intention to push Palestinians out of Gaza has become apparent: a leaked report from the Israeli ministry of intelligence, dated 13 October, called for “the evacuation of the civilian population from Gaza to Sinai”. Then in late October, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu unsuccessfully urged France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to press Egypt to accept Gazan refugees. Earlier this month, Netanyahu reportedly instructed the minister of strategic planning and close aide, Ron Dermer, to explore ways to enable “a mass escape [of Palestinians] to European and African countries”. Israel’s current far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, ex-minister of intelligence Gila Gamliel, former ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon, and former head of National Security Giora Eiland have also advocated for this outcome: their proposals all envisage the displacement of Palestinian to Egypt and beyond. Some also suggest establishing tent cities in Egypt, leading eventually to the construction of cities to host Palestinians permanently.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has firmly rejected any scenario leading to the forced relocation of Gazans into its Sinai Peninsula. So too has the US. In private though, the Egyptian government was reported to be mulling a US offer to write off $160 billion in Egyptian debt in return for hosting 100,000 Gazan refugees. In October, the White House asked Congress for additional funding “to address potential needs of Gazans fleeing to neighbouring countries”.
But there are serious doubts on Egypt’s ability to absorb Palestinian refugees even if it chose – or was forced – to do so. The country hosts around 9 million refugees and migrants from more than a hundred nationalities. Somewhere between 70,000 and 135,000 are Palestinian, most of whom arrived as a result of the Nakba in 1948 and the subsequent war between Israel and Arab states in 1967. Palestinian refugees live in legal limbo as they are denied refugee status both from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which does not operate in Egypt, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, whose mandate does not cover Palestinians. This has turned them into an “invisible” population left to fend for themselves through informal networks and by tapping into existing social structures. This means Egypt has little ability to host Palestinians.
Egypt also has deep political and security concerns. The government could face a massive backlash if it is seen as enabling another Nakba. In addition, Hamas has strong ideological links with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Sisi has brutally suppressed in Egypt following the military coup against the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Sisi may fear that an influx of Palestinians into Egypt, many of them potentially Hamas members, could rekindle the Muslim Brotherhood in the country.
The arrival of potentially hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of Palestinians could also destabilise the Sinai Peninsula where the Egyptian army has been battling armed groups linked to Islamic State since 2013. A sizeable refugee population deprived of any socio-economic and political prospects would also serve as a constant recruiting pool for armed groups, feeding insurgencies in the Sinai, Gaza, and along the border Egyptian-Israeli border.
Amid the current threat of Palestinian displacement, the Rafah crossing has been largely closed, allowing only a few wounded Palestinians and dual-nationals to get out. But Israel’s military push further south could worsen the situation at Rafah. Faced with a critical humanitarian situation on its border as winter sets in, Egypt could be compelled by a mixture of economic and international pressures to open its crossing at Rafah. Catastrophic humanitarian conditions in Gaza may also leave Palestinians with no choice but to break into Egypt, as it happened in 2008 when, in response to the ongoing blockade in Gaza by Israel, Hamas destroyed parts of the Rafah border fence, allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians to storm into Egypt.
A sudden, sizeable increase in numbers in a volatile, arid, and relatively undeveloped area would worsen an already dire security situation and could push highly vulnerable Gazans to attempt the perilous sea journey to neighbouring Europe. This prospect has already prompted the European Commission to fast track negotiations with Cairo over a new migration deal to prevent growing migration to Europe. This follows a previous EU offer of €21m to Egypt to absorb refugees from Sudan to prevent them from reaching Europe. Here, the Egyptian government could do what Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey have done before and use the threat of onwards migration to Europe to extract additional concessions from Europe to address its deteriorating domestic economic situation.
Rather than seeking deals with Egypt to prevent refugees fleeing to their shores, Europeans should work to mobilise the wider international community to ensure Palestinians are able to safely remain in Gaza with adequate humanitarian support. The EU has so far pledged more than €100m in humanitarian aid to Gaza, but most of this is stuck on the Egyptian side of the border. Europeans should do more to ensure this aid actually reaches those in need inside Gaza. To provide support to Palestinians and ensure aid is not instrumentalised by Hamas, Europeans can draw on their experience in providing support to local populations in countries controlled by armed actors, such as Syria and Yemen, and from their partnerships with neutral humanitarian organisations.
The commission has said it is against any forcible transfer of Palestinians into Egypt. This is not enough to avoid catastrophic consequences for Palestinians and a potentially destabilising impact on Egypt, given the threat of a revival of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and Europe, given the imperative to stop migration. Even as they increase their humanitarian support for Palestinians in Gaza, Europeans must oppose the expansion of Israel’s ground offensive in the south and push for a durable ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Pledging more humanitarian aid amid the current war risks doing very little if the military campaign continues to threaten civilians, aid gets destroyed, and the majority of border crossings remain shut.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.