JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli government ministry has 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 President Mahmoud Abbas, said of the report. “What happened in 1948 will not be allowed to happen again.”
A mass displacement, Abu Rudeineh said, would be “tantamount to declaring a new war.”
So far more than 8,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians, have been killed since Israel went to war against Hamas after its Oct. 7 attack.
The document is dated Oct. 13, six days after Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people in southern Israel and took over 240 hostage in an attack that provoked a devastating Israeli war in Gaza. 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.”
The document’s authors deem this alternative to be the most desirable for Israel’s security.
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.
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.
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.
“If this paper is true, 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.”
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.”
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 that put Hamas in 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.
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