Document rejects reinstalling PA rule in Gaza

Intelligence Ministry ‘concept paper’ proposes transferring Gazans to Egypt’s Sinai

Prime Minister’s Office plays down document as hypothetical, non-binding, though Netanyahu reported to be lobbying EU governments to pressure Egypt to take in refugees

Palestinians leave their homes following Israeli bombardment on Gaza City, October 30, 2023. (Abed Khaled/AP)
Palestinians leave their homes following Israeli bombardment on Gaza City, October 30, 2023. (Abed Khaled/AP)

Israel acknowledged Monday that one of its ministries drafted a wartime proposal to transfer the Gaza Strip’s 2.3 million people to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, drawing condemnation from the Palestinians and worsening tensions with Cairo.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office played down the report compiled by the Intelligence Ministry as a hypothetical exercise — a “concept paper.” But its conclusions deepened long-standing Egyptian fears that Israel wants to make Gaza into Egypt’s problem, and revived for Palestinians memories of their greatest trauma — the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of people who fled or were forced from their homes during the fighting surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

“We are against transfer to any place, in any form, and we consider it a red line that we will not allow to be crossed,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said of the report. “What happened in 1948 will not be allowed to happen again.”

A mass displacement, Rudeineh said, would be “tantamount to declaring a new war.”

Aimed at preserving security for Israel

The document is dated October 13, six days after the Hamas attack. It was first published by Sicha Mekomit, a local news site.

In its report, the Intelligence Ministry — a junior ministry that conducts research but does not set policy — offered three alternatives “to effect a significant change in the civilian reality in the Gaza Strip in light of the Hamas crimes that led to the Sword of Iron war” — using the IDF label given to the war.

The document proposes moving Gaza’s civilian population to tent cities in northern Sinai, then building permanent cities and an undefined humanitarian corridor. A security zone would be established inside Israel to block the displaced Palestinians from entering. The report did not say what would become of Gaza once its population is cleared out but its authors deem this alternative to be the most desirable for Israel’s security.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the report. But Egypt has made clear throughout this latest war that it does not want to take in a wave of Palestinian refugees.

In this undated photo released by the IDF on October 30, 2023, Israeli forces are seen operating inside the Gaza Strip (IDF Spokesperson)

Egypt has long feared that Israel wants to force a permanent expulsion of Palestinians into its territory, as happened during the war surrounding Israel’s independence. Egypt ruled Gaza between 1948 and 1967, when Israel captured the territory, along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The vast majority of Gaza’s population are the descendants of Palestinian refugees uprooted from what is now Israel.

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah El-Sissi, has said a mass influx of refugees from Gaza would eliminate the Palestinian nationalist cause. It would also risk bringing militants into Sinai, where they might launch attacks on Israel, he said. That would endanger the countries’ 1979 peace treaty. He proposed that Israel instead house Palestinians in its Negev Desert, which neighbors the Gaza Strip until it ends its military operations.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the paper threatened to damage relations with a key partner.

“This is a grave mistake. It might cause a strategic rift between Israel and Egypt,” said Guzansky, who said he has consulted for the ministry in the past. “I see it either as ignorance or someone who wants to negatively affect Israel-Egypt relations, which are very important at this stage.”

Egypt is a valuable partner that cooperates behind the scenes with Israel, he said. If it is seen as overtly assisting an Israeli plan like this, especially involving the Palestinians, it could be “devastating to its stability.”

Questions of legitimacy – and other possible destinations

Egypt would not necessarily be the Palestinian refugees’ last stop. The document speaks about Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supporting the plan either financially, or by taking in uprooted residents of Gaza as refugees and in the long term as citizens. Canada’s “lenient” immigration practices also make it a potential resettlement target, the document adds.

At first glance, this proposal “is liable to be complicated in terms of international legitimacy,” the document acknowledges. “In our assessment, fighting after the population is evacuated would lead to fewer civilian casualties compared to what could be expected if the population were to remain.”

Palestinians wait to cross into Egypt at the Rafah border crossing in the Gaza Strip on October 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

An Israeli official familiar with the document said it isn’t binding and that there was no substantive discussion of it with security officials. Netanyahu’s office called it a “concept paper, the likes of which are prepared at all levels of the government and its security agencies.”

“The issue of the ‘day after’ has not been discussed in any official forum in Israel, which is focused at this time on destroying the governing and military capabilities of Hamas,” the prime minister’s office said.

The document dismisses the two other options: reinstating the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority as the sovereign in Gaza or supporting a local regime. Among other reasons, it rejects them as unable to deter attacks on Israel.

The reinstatement of the Palestinian Authority, which was ejected from Gaza after a weeklong 2007 war with Hamas, which won power, would be “an unprecedented victory of the Palestinian national movement, a victory that will claim the lives of thousands of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and does not safeguard Israel’s security,” the document says.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has said in a newspaper interview that the PA would only agree to take over Gaza as part of a broader peace initiative to create a Palestinian state.

Lobbying Egypt to take in refugees

Despite the downplaying of the paper by Netanyahu’s office, the Financial Times reported Monday that the premier has sought to convince European leaders to pressure Egypt into accepting refugees.

Officials from the Czech Republic and Austria relayed the idea during a meeting of European leaders last week but officials from France, Germany and the UK quickly rejected the proposal as unrealistic, given Egypt’s public opposition to taking in refugees.

Israel has refused to publicly promise that refugees will be allowed back into Gaza if they leave, hardening Cairo’s stance against the idea, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel last week.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry has said that more than 8,300 people have been killed in the war, many of them children. The figures issued by the terror group cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include its own members killed in Gaza and Israel, as well as the victims of what Israel says are hundreds of errant Palestinian rockets aimed at Israel that have landed inside the Strip since the war began.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The current war erupted on October 7 after some 2,500 Hamas and other terrorists stormed across the Gaza frontier in a multi-pronged attack and killed over 1,400 people, most of them civilians slaughtered in their homes and at an outdoor music festival.

The terrorists also abducted over 230 people to Gaza. The captives, also mainly civilians, include women, the elderly and children, some still in diapers.

Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas and remove it from power. The IDF has carried out intensive strikes on Gaza and troops have entered the Palestinian enclave ahead of an expected major ground operation. Israel says it is striving to minimize civilian casualties and has instructed Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate and head south. According to the IDF, some 700,000 people of the estimated 1.1 million population of northern Gaza have evacuated south.

Terror groups led by Hamas have continued to barrage southern and central Israel with rocket fire, causing further deaths and injuries. There has also been sporadic rocket fire in the north from the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group and its allies. Over 200,000 people in Israel have been displaced from their homes.

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