Humanitarian Crisis in Gaza: Why Egypt and Other Arab Countries Refuse to Open Their Doors to Palestinian Refugees


As Palestinians in Gaza seek refuge amid Israel’s relentless bombardment, neighboring Egypt and Jordan refuse to accept them. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II have expressed concerns that Israel aims to force a permanent expulsion of Palestinians into their countries and nullify Palestinian demands for statehood.

They also fear that a mass exodus would risk bringing militants into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they might launch attacks on Israel, endangering the two countries’ 40-year-old peace treaty.

Displacement has been a major theme in Palestinian history, with 700,000 Palestinians expelled or fled from Israel in the 1948 war and 300,000 more in the 1967 Mideast war when Israel seized the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The refusal to accept refugees is rooted in fear that Israel may force a permanent expulsion of Palestinians and nullify Palestinian demands for statehood.

Nearly 6 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants now live in various countries, including the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Israel has refused to allow refugees to return to their homes since the 1948 war, arguing that it would threaten the country’s Jewish majority. Egypt fears that history will repeat itself, with a large Palestinian refugee population from Gaza staying for good due to the lack of a clear scenario for the war’s end. Israel claims to destroy Hamas for its rampage in southern towns, but has not given any indication of what will happen afterward or who will govern Gaza. This has raised concerns that Israel may reoccupy the territory for a period, fueling further conflict. Israeli military officials have said Palestinians who followed orders to flee northern Gaza will be allowed back to their homes after the war ends.

Egypt has urged Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, which it has said it will do, though it has not stated when. Egypt is currently hosting 9 million refugees and migrants, including 300,000 Sudanese who arrived this year after fleeing their country’s war. Arab countries and many Palestinians suspect that Israel might use this opportunity to force permanent demographic changes to wreck Palestinian demands for statehood in Gaza, the West Bank, and east Jerusalem. El-Sissi argued that an exodus from Gaza was intended to “eliminate the Palestinian cause,” and that if a demilitarized Palestinian state had been created long ago in negotiations, there would not be war now.

Arab countries’ fears have been stoked by the rise under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of hard-right parties that talk positively about removing Palestinians. Following the Hamas attack, right-wing politicians and media commentators have become more vocal, advocating for the military to raze Gaza and expel its inhabitants. Egypt also claims that a mass exodus from Gaza would bring Hamas or other Palestinian militants onto its soil, which might be destabilizing in Sinai. Egypt has backed Israel’s blockade of Gaza since Hamas took over in 2007, tightly controlling the entry of materials and the passage of civilians.

Cairo is avoiding a new security problem in the Sinai region after the insurgency is largely down. El-Sissi warns of the destabilizing scenario of the 1979 peace deal between Egypt and Israel, where Sinai could become a base for attacks on Israel. He believes the peace achieved would be lost for the sake of eliminating the Palestinian cause, causing the peace to vanish from Cairo’s hands.

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