There have been leaked Israeli reports on a secret summit bringing together Egypt, Israel, and Jordan in the city of Aqaba, attended by United States (US) Secretary of State John Kerry in February 2016, accompanied by other leaks and rumors regarding an alleged offer presented by Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi for the resettlement of Palestinians in an 1,600 square kilometer area to be carved out of Sinai between Rafah and Arish. Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied the existence of such an Egyptian proposal, he admitted the summit in Aqaba had taken place. The Egyptian side, which avoided answering questions about the summit, also denied the existence of the proposal.
However, there is something to be concerned about in the presence of Israeli plans to resettle Palestinians in Sinai, and the possibility of putting pressure on the Egyptian regime, which is already facing several political, economic, and security pressures, to accept them.
The scenarios include:
1) The possibility of a devastating Israeli war on Gaza Strip (GS) that could lead to the displacement of large numbers of its residents into Sinai;
2) The possibility that Egypt and Arab parties would accept the idea in return for inducements and incentives; and
3) The possibility that the Palestinian people, supported by Arab and Islamic parties and entities, would be able to thwart the plans for re-settlement, which is the probable course of events.
First: Resettling Palestinians in Sinai between Confirmation and Denial
On 14/2/2017, reports said that an Israeli minister, who holds no cabinet portfolio, and is a member of the Likud Party, tweeted saying that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump, had agreed to adopt a plan by Egyptian President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi to establish a Palestinian state in GS and Sinai instead of the West Bank (WB), paving the way for a “comprehensive peace” with what he described as the “Sunni coalition.” The tweet was sent shortly before a meeting between Netanyahu and Trump in Washington.
The tweet brought back to mind reports from the Israeli Army Radio (Galey Tzahal), on 8/9/2014, that said al-Sisi proposed to Palestinian President ‘Abbas establishing a non-militarized Palestinian state in GS and an 1,600 square kilometer area carved from Sinai and annexed to the Strip. In return, ‘Abbas would relinquish demands for Palestinian statehood on the basis of the 4 June 1967 borders. However, ‘Abbas reportedly rejected this proposal.
Ayoob Kara told The Times of Israel online newspaper that he had discussed the proposal with Netanyahu on 12/2/2017, and that the latter told him he would raise the issue with Trump.
A few days later, on 19/2/2017, Haaretz newspaper revealed a secret conference had been held on 21/2/2016 in Aqaba, Jordan, attended by Netanyahu, John Kerry, King Abdullah II, and al-Sisi. Netanyahu at the summit purportedly rejected a project for a settlement proposed by Kerry, which would include according to Haaretz recognition of “Israel as a Jewish state,” and resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians with the support of Arab countries. However, the Israeli newspaper did not allude to the proposal by al-Sisi regarding the resettlement of Palestinians in parts of Sinai, which will be annexed to the proposed Palestinian state.
Although Egypt and Jordan never confirmed the summit took place, Netanyahu himself did confirm the attendance of an Egyptian-Israeli-Jordanian summit. However, Netanyahu denied the claims by Kara that he intended to discuss establishing a Palestinian state in parts of Sinai during his meeting with Trump.
Interestingly, there was an official Palestinian absence from the conference, despite the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) close adherence to the peace process, and despite it being the main party concerned with any agreement touching on the future of the Palestinian people.
Following Netanyahu’s denials of the project for setting Palestinians in Sinai, former Member of Knesset General Aryeh Eldad told Maariv that al-Sisi had indeed proposed granting the Palestinians territories in northern Sinai to establish a state.
In Egypt, Spokesperson for Egypt’s President, Alaa Youssef, said that the issue has not been discussed or presented “on any level.” He added: “It’s unimaginable to get into such unrealistic and unacceptable proposals especially in Sinai, which is a dear part of the nation.”
Likewise, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied reports carried by Arutz Sheva (Channel Seven) regarding the alleged plan for settling Palestinians in Sinai, describing them as a set of lies. On Teachers Day, al-Sisi denied the authenticity of the reports, saying that no one has the right to do that.
The reports above do not reflect accurate information that can be built upon regarding the project to settle Palestinians in Sinai. However, the way these reports surfaced raise a number of legitimate questions…
Can a minister in the Israeli government, a Likud member, and a close associate of the prime minister be really just a “liar” or an attention-seeking provocateur even at the cost of spoiling relations with a country like Egypt so crucial to Israel’s strategy?! Why did the prime minister do little more than deny the reports…without punishing the minister Ayoob Kara?
Why did Egypt, Jordan, and the US remain silent about convening a conference in Aqaba and kept it a secret, except for Israel, which uncovered it at the highest levels a year later?
Are there other secret agendas that have yet to be revealed?! Was the resettlement of Palestinians in Sinai one of these? Was Kara doing merely a test balloon authorized by the Israeli leadership to test public reaction?! Then making a move in that direction if the all clear is given?
Second: The US Role
Away from the US perception of Israel as one of the key pillars of its policies in the Middle East, it has become plain for all, that the new US policy under Trump will be one of the most supportive of Israeli ambitions in the region in US history, based on many indications:
1. Trump’s promises to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
2. The close links between Trump and senior members of his administrations and the Zionist extreme right.
3. In a serious precedent with major implications, Trump invited leaders of Israel’s settler movement to attend his inauguration.
4. Trump has blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the peace process, and who are “taught tremendous hate.” He dropped a U.S. commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
5. It is difficult to ignore the fact that the US was one of the first to propose the idea of resettling Palestinian refugees, initiated by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs George McGhee in 1949.
Third: Israeli Plans and the Idea of Resettling Palestinians in Sinai
The idea of resettling Palestinians in Sinai was never absent from the minds of Israeli leaders and their plans. The idea can be seen as an extension of the Israeli vision to get rid of the Palestinian people and resettle them and liquidate their identity in other nations. This was evident in many projects, including:
1. The plan proposed by Israel’s National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, in 2004, calling for Egypt to give 600 square kilometers in Sinai to Palestinian refugees. In return, Israel cedes 200 square kilometers of land in the southern Negev Desert to Egypt and offers economic incentives.
2. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh’s plan in 2013, to extend GS’s borders to Arish and include the cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zouweid, then resettling Palestinian refugees there.
Fourth: Egypt’s Role
Despite the Egyptian official denial of proposals for resettling Palestinians in Sinai, it is important to track the official conduct to ensure there are no hidden agendas, and that the regime is not coming under external pressures to reach a resolution to the Palestinian issue at the expense of the Palestinian people, their right of return, and their right to end the occupation of their lands.
The Egyptian regime under Nasser had dealt positively with the idea of resettling 50–60 thousand Palestinians in Sinai. The matter took on a serious form when he collaborated with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) between 1953 and 1955 to prepare this project. However, the Palestinians in GS were able to thwart the project.
There are other important factors that should be taken into consideration, including the special relationship and unprecedented cooperation between al-Sisi regime and Israel, the Egyptian regime’s role in blockading GS, and the fragile political situation in Egypt.
Other factors include the authoritarian regime in Cairo that has cracked down on opposition, the economic hardship in Egypt, and the Egyptian regime’s need for US and Western support to tackle all its political, security, and economic woes. Therefore, this is a regime that can be easily pressured in return for helping its survival, according to Israeli and US calculations.
Fifth: At the Palestinian Level
The statements of various Palestinian leaders regarding the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in Sinai prove there is a consensus on rejecting it. In reality, it is difficult to discuss the plausibility of the plan from the logical point view. So far, the Palestinian leaders and people have succeeded in thwarting all schemes of their resettlement.
1. Attempting to Displace Palestinians from GS to Sinai Through a Devastating War
There are fast growing indications that a fierce war on GS will be launched soon. Such an aggression could lead to the displacement of a large number of Gazans to Sinai, whether with or without an Israeli-Egyptian agreement. Israel could implement this plan based on the following:
a. The presence of an extremist, racist, right-wing leadership in Israel.
b. Israeli military power, especially in light of expectations of unprecedented US cover and support.
c. The inability of Arab and international fora to resolve regional crises.
d. The bloodbaths in the Middle East must be taken into consideration, specifically in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. This could encourage Israel to perpetrate similar massacres in GS, to force its population to flee into Sinai.
e. The GS tough economic conditions, which may force its people to reside in Sinai if the option and incentive is there.
f. Growing inclination towards immigration and finding a better life elsewhere among youths in the Strip. One study suggested 24% of youths in GS wanted to immigrate.
If Israel wants to displace the Palestinians of GS, this will not mean its entire population, but rather a segment of them with the intent of planting the resettlement notion. Particularly so when those fleeing to Sinai from GS are expected to initially receive aid and services by international aid groups, which would reinforce their presence. As a result, the impression may spread that conditions in Sinai are better than in Gaza, turning temporary asylum to a permanent presence.
However, this scenario is fraught with risks. It may take the form of an uncalculated Israeli adventure, which could backfire for Israel, leading to the collapse of the peace process and conferring further legitimacy on resistance forces. Furthermore, the steadfastness of the Palestinian people and their close awareness of such plans for resettlement will help thwart them.
In addition, a strong Arab and Islamic movement could coalesce, pressuring the Egyptian regime not to cooperate to deliver this plan. This is all not to mention the further damage the above could cause to Israel’s image, resulting in further isolation and failure.
2. The Possibility of Arab Acceptance of Resettlement
This scenario depends on the acceptance of the ruling Arab regimes of solutions that would lead to the liquidation of the Palestinian issue, based on the following factors:
a. The preoccupation of many Arab states with their innumerable problems, including countries that previously backed the Palestinian issue.
b. Several Arab regimes are “terrified” by the unknown. They are fearful for their future and the future of their countries, which make them more amenable to any solutions that can guarantee their stability and territorial integrity, believing good Arab relations with Israel and the US may be conducive to this.
c. The preoccupation of Arab and Islamic parties and popular forces with their own problems, which distracts them away from the Palestinian issue.
d. It is expected that the stage that will come after Mahmud ‘Abbas will be very difficult, given the continued divisions and the absence of institutional work. This will sideline any effective and influential Palestinian role in the future and draw the PA into a crucible of internal conflict. One result could be that control of the Palestinian issue falls back to Arab countries, especially Egypt, whose regime is suffering from a number of major problems that make it prone to pressures and blackmail.
The likelihood for this scenario materializing is low. Indeed, the Palestinian people and the Arabs are expected to resist plans for the resettlement of Palestinian refugees, which makes Arab regimes afraid of reactions from the Arab street. The issue of resettlement remains a redline crossing which destroys the credibility and even legitimacy of Arab regimes.
3. Failure of the Resettlement Schemes
It is expected that the plan of resettling Palestinians in Sinai would fail. Indeed, for more than seven decades, the Palestinians have been able to foil dozens of projects for resettlement. There is still a Palestinian consensus on rejecting resettlement and affirming the right of return. This is the more likely scenario. Indeed, both the Palestinian and Egyptian peoples are real obstacles when it comes to implementing the plan for an alternative homeland. The patriotic, nationalistic, and Islamic spirit, and the sanctity of national borders, constitute real barriers against resettlement.
In addition, the PA is careful not to tackle sensitive issues, led by the refugee issue, and the Palestinian resistance led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ) will not allow such plans to pass and will use all means to prevent them.
Finally, Arab official policies remain opposed to resettlement and keen on the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Despite decades of dispossession, the culture of return and resettlement rejection remains a major concern for the state of Israel. However, Israel is constantly trying to find gaps to to achieve its goal of getting rid of the Palestinian refugees. Given the difficult conditions in Palestine, the Arab world, and the Muslim world, the result of the crises precipitated by the so-called “Arab Spring,” Israel is banking on a Palestinian and Arab acceptance of the idea of resettlement in Sinai.
However, historical evidence suggests Israeli plans for major Arab issues are usually strongly resisted by the Palestinian people, for example through repeated Intifadahs, which have often thwarted Israeli threats.
Resistance remains strong among the Palestinians, with the Intifadahs in 1987–1993, 2000–2005, and the recent Jerusalem Intifadah, as well as Gaza’s resistance during the wars of 2008/2009, 2012, and 2014; in addition to Jerusalem’s Intifadah. The culture of steadfastness in the homeland and the culture of return remain strong and solid among Palestinians.
Eight: Recommendations and Proposals
It is important to intensify all Palestinian efforts to obstruct and prevent the resettlement of Palestinians in Sinai, while bearing in mind the huge imbalance in the configuration of regional power in favor of Israel. However, there are political, diplomatic, and media tools available for these efforts, requiring the following:
1. Intensifying media and awareness campaigns in the Palestinian circles regarding the dangers of resettlement conspiracies.
2. Rebuilding the PLO and the Palestinian polity to accommodate all forces and segments, and deepen institutional work that is not affected by the death of persons and the change of leadership.
3. Calling on the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as well as the Non-Alignment Movement, to take firm positions and issue statements warning against the liquidation of the Palestinian refugee issue through resettlement projects.
4. Supporting any judicial bid by human rights activists in Egypt to reject the idea of resettling Palestinians in Sinai.
5. Engaging humanitarian and human rights organizations to issue statements warning against the resettlement of Palestinians outside their land.
6. Reaffirming the geographical unity of Palestine, of which the WB and GS are inseparable parts.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre extends its sincere gratitude to Mr. Muhammad Abu Sa‘dah for contributing to the draft of this strategic assessment.