Amid rising tensions in the Middle East, a leaked Israeli government document has ignited concerns regarding the potential mass relocation of 2.3 million Palestinians from Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Critics are dubbing the action as a possible ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
The controversial document, first unveiled by Israeli media, was a product of the Israeli government’s Intelligence Ministry, dated Oct. 13. This came mere days after a series of deadly Hamas-initiated attacks on Israel, prompting the Israeli government to declare war on the militant group.
Though not an official policy, the revelation has intensified Egyptian apprehensions of Israel shifting the Gaza issue onto their shoulders. Simultaneously, it stirs memories among Palestinians of the Nakba in 1948 – the displacement event surrounding Israel’s inception.
“What happened in 1948 will not be allowed to happen again,” declared Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, according to The Canadian Press. He warned that any such large-scale displacement would equate to “declaring a new war.”
A Hebrew-English translation of the document by the Israeli website +972 Magazine shed light on three alternatives for Gaza’s civilian population. The most contentious option recommends evacuating Gazans to Sinai, branding it as a potential long-term strategic benefit for Israel. According to the document, this wouldn’t be a transient relocation, envisioning the establishment of tent cities initially, followed by a humanitarian zone and the construction of permanent settlements in northern Sinai.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, however, downplayed the document’s significance, labelling it a mere “concept paper.” Yet, the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, an Israeli think-tank, echoed similar sentiments in their recently released paper, highlighting a golden opportunity to coordinate Gaza’s evacuation with Egypt, according to a translation from Mondoweiss.
The profound implications of such a move have not gone unnoticed. “Pushing Palestinians out of Gaza into Sinai would be ‘ethnic cleansing,'” stated Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and politician, speaking to CBC News. He emphasized the perilous precedent it would set for the Palestinian populace.
Ethnic cleansing, a term that rose to prominence during the 1990s Yugoslav war, is not acknowledged as a standalone crime under international law. However, acts resembling its attributes can be classified as other crimes, such as crimes against humanity or even genocide.
McGill University’s Israeli-American historian, Professor Gil Troy, urged caution in swiftly branding Israel’s potential plan as a “transfer” of Palestinians out of Gaza. While he acknowledged that some territorial losses in Gaza might be plausible, he argued that the primary motive would be “territorial defence” rather than ethnic cleansing.
In the backdrop of these revelations, the Israeli government cited Hamas-led militants for the deaths of over 1,400 civilians and soldiers during a surprise assault, alongside taking 240 hostages. Gaza’s Hamas-run Health Ministry reports the Palestinian death toll at more than 8,700 since Israel initiated their offensive.
Under the United Nations Charter’s Article 51, Israel holds the “inherent right” to self-defend against armed attacks. Nevertheless, human rights groups have pointed to potential violations of international humanitarian law on both sides.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defence but also expressed significant concerns, stressing that “The price of justice cannot be the continued suffering of all Palestinian civilians.”
Whether Israel would undertake such a move remains uncertain, but the leaked document underscores the significance of international backing. It proposes employing “large advertising agencies” to relay a message focusing on assisting Palestinians without vilifying Israel. Additionally, the document suggests various incentives, such as financial aid, to counterbalance Egypt’s potential economic strains from the influx of refugees.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has reiterated his concerns regarding this proposal, emphasizing the potential eradication of the Palestinian nationalist cause and the security risks associated with it.