Israel Palestine Conflict

Palestinians fear displacement as Egypt said to make contingency plan

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For Palestinians forced from their homes by Israel’s Gaza offensive, reports that Egypt is bracing for the possibility of a Palestinian exodus have only hardened their fears of being driven off the land entirely.

Deep-seated concern that Palestinians could be forced from the Gaza Strip has loomed large for both the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors ever since Israel launched its devastating assault in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas.

Now, as Israel says it will attack Rafah, contingency plans which sources say are being made in Egypt to accommodate Palestinians - if it comes to it - are deepening such worries, though Egypt denies making any such preparations and Israel says it has no intention of deporting Palestinians from Gaza.

“If we went to Egypt, who can guarantee our return to our country?” said Elfat al-Nahhal, among the displaced in Rafah.

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“We will repeat the story of 1948,” she said, referring to the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled their homes during the war of Israel’s creation.

Palestinians remember this as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe.”

Already displaced several times since October, she ruled out leaving: “We are here and that’s it.”

Four sources told Reuters that Egypt had begun preparing an area at the Gaza border which could accommodate Palestinians in case an Israeli offensive on Rafah prompts an exodus across the frontier, emphasizing this was a contingency step.

The head of Egypt’s State Information Service said the sources’ accounts had “no basis in truth.”

Egypt has repeatedly raised the alarm over the possibility that Israel’s Gaza offensive could displace Palestinians into Sinai - something Cairo says would be completely unacceptable.

The warnings have been echoed by other Arab states, notably Jordan, which borders the West Bank and took in many of the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and by the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States has repeatedly said it would oppose any displacement of Palestinians out of Gaza.

The Israeli government has said the offensive aims to destroy Hamas, not force out Palestinians. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Friday Israel has no plans to deport Palestinians from Gaza and will find a way to not harm Egypt’s interests. But some Israeli ministers have advocated the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza.

Displaced Palestinians camp near the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, on February 16, 2024 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
Displaced Palestinians camp near the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, on February 16, 2024 in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Two Israeli officials contacted by Reuters on Friday declined to comment on the report of Egypt’s contingency plan.

Israel has said its army is drawing up a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah to other parts of the Gaza Strip.


Fearing ‘a second Nakba’

Currently living in a tent in Rafah, Um Zaki said she had nowhere to go with her five children, having already fled twice.

“Maybe they will force us into Sinai by sending the tanks in, some people will not think twice and will climb the wall to save their lives and their children, and no one should blame them,” the 49-year-old told Reuters by phone.

“This isn’t what I fear. I am afraid it will be a second Nakba and that we will not return to Gaza,” she added.

“In 1948 Arab countries assured our parents in Jaffa and elsewhere it would be a matter of days before they returned and here we are, 75 years of displacement,” she said.

“Will there be a deal at the last minute to save Rafah, save the Gaza Strip? I only hope the miracle happens.”

Israel says it must go into Rafah to wipe out the “last bastion” of Hamas, the Palestinian group behind the October 7 attack into Israel in which militants killed 1,200 people and abducted around another 250, according to Israeli tallies.

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The Israeli offensive waged in response has laid waste to swathes of the Gaza Strip and killed more than 28,000 people, according to health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.

The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees told Reuters on Friday that a spillover of refugees from Rafah into Egypt would be a disaster and that Egyptian authorities had made clear that Palestinians should be assisted in the enclave.

“It would be a disaster for the Palestinians... a disaster for Egypt and a disaster for the future of peace,” Filippo Grandi told Reuters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said on Thursday it was an “illusion” to think people in Gaza could evacuate to a safe place and warned of the possibility of Palestinians spilling into Egypt if Israel launches a military operation in Rafah.

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