Inside Israel's Plans To Transfer Palestinians From Gaza To Egypt's Sinai
Dubbed by some as the 'Eiland plan,' after a retired Israel general, Egypt is vehemently opposed to any attempt to transfer Palestinian refugees from Gaza, which could turn Sinai into a launch pad for operations against Israel, and ultimately redraw the map of the Middle East again.
CAIRO — On October 24, a document leaked from Israeli Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel detailed that a durable post-war solution for Gaza has to include the transfer of Palestinians to Sinai, Egypt. According to the document obtained by the Israeli Calcalist news website, the move would include three steps: Establishing tent cities in Sinai, creating a humanitarian corridor, and constructing cities in North Sinai for the new refugees. In addition, “a sterile zone” several kilometers wide would be established in Egypt south of the border with Israel to prevent Palestinians from returning.
The ministry, according to observers, doesn’t have a strong weight in government, with intelligence apparatuses operating outside its framework. “The existence of the document and the formal idea is not a surprise. But that it is leaked and the proof it is out there, is interesting,” says Daniel Levy, president of the London-based Middle East Project and former peace negotiator with Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.
Shortly before that, on October 18, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi delivered an improvised speech about the ongoing Israeli military assault against the Gaza Strip that followed Hamas’ incursion into Israel nearly two weeks earlier.
“Transferring [Palestinian] refugees from the Gaza Strip to Sinai would simply amount to relocating their resistance… turning Sinai into a launch pad for operations against Israel and granting Israel the right to defend itself and its national security by conducting strikes on Egyptian land in retaliation.”
Sisi’s vehement rejection of a “second nakba,” especially after U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to pressure Egypt to create a humanitarian corridor, was turned into a quest to elicit public support for his government. With less than a month to go before a presidential election that was hastily announced amid a crippling economic crisis, Sisi then called for popular demonstrations to support his position. His appeal resulted in a few thousand people turning out for protests on October 20, primarily in Cairo.
Sisi’s position is also consistent with a stance long held by previous Egyptian rulers who have historically rejected any Israeli attempts to displace Palestinians into Sinai. Whether or not Israel’s current military campaign against Gaza succeeds in making the relocation plan a fait accompli is yet to be determined.
Against this backdrop, Egyptian media outlets, owned by security apparatuses close to Sisi, have been publishing and airing detailed reports about an earlier Israeli blueprint to relocate Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. Most of them claim to have revealed what they call the “Eiland plan,” named after a retired major general, Giora Eiland, who served as the head of the Israeli National Security Council between 2004 and 2006. State-aligned media have made sure to highlight Sisi’s uncompromising opposition to the plan, even if it includes offers for debt relief or financial aid packages from the Joe Biden administration.
“It’s like they are all reading the same script,” said an Egyptian journalist and media observer who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.
The "Eiland Plan"
By what does the Eiland plan entail? The ex-major general’s proposal to hollow out the Gaza Strip as a strategic solution for Israel goes back nearly 20 years. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was preparing a plan for Israel to unilaterally disengage from the Gaza Strip. He claimed that his initiative fell within the parameters of the 2003 Roadmap for Peace — overseen by the so-called quartet of the European Union, the United Nations, Russia and, most importantly, the United States — which aimed to bring an end to the Second Intifada.
According to a biography authored by his son, Sharon believed that the disengagement plan would isolate the strip, even at the expense of the Israeli settlements there. Disengaging from Gaza would then free up resources to expand Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a much bigger prize in the eyes of the settler movement and a higher priority for Sharon’s rival within the Likud Party, Benjamin Netanyahu, now serving as prime minister. Although he was involved in managing Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, Eiland was known to be a critic of the initiative, which led to his eventual resignation from the council.
Around the same time, Eiland developed an alternative scheme to pacify the Gaza Strip. According to Elliot Abrams, who served as the U.S. deputy national security advisor under the George Bush Jr. administration and who worked closely with his Israeli counterparts in drawing up the disengagement plan, Eiland sought to transfer Palestinians from Gaza to Sinai. As early as 2004, he proposed that Egypt give up territory nearly five times the size of Gaza in order to absorb a significant portion of Palestinians from the strip. In return, Cairo would be compensated with land in the southeast of Israel that would allow for a car tunnel linking Egypt and Jordan.
The Dahiyeh Doctrine
However, former President Hosni Mubarak refused to cede any territory under Egyptian sovereignty. According to Hani al-Masry, the director of the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies (Masarat), the plan was resisted by all Arab stakeholders. “Arab countries are sensitive to this issue,” he said, “especially Egypt and Jordan.”
This may not have been the first time that Israel presented Mubarak with such an offer. In 2017, Mubarak claimed that he rejected similar offers from Israel in previous years. In 2010, he claimed that the Netanyahu government proposed to resettle Palestinians in Sinai as part of a land swap between Israel and Egypt, which Mubarak refused. His comments came after BBC Arabic reported that Mubarak had agreed to accept Palestinian refugees into his country in 1983 as part of a broader framework for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict — a claim that the deposed president flatly denied.
Israel should encourage Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip altogether.
Despite having little support for his Sinai proposal, Eiland continued to play an important role in Israeli military and strategic thinking over the following years. According to the well-known Goldstone Report — which was the outcome of a UN fact-finding mission set up to investigate violations of international law during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2009 — the military campaign known as Operation Cast Lead reflected a “qualitative shift from relatively focused operations to massive and deliberate destruction.” As it turned out, this new strategy had emerged from a change in military thinking that was outlined by the chief of the Israeli Defense Forces’ northern command during the 2006 Lebanon War and first implemented in the Dahiyeh neighborhood, a Hezbollah stronghold in south Beirut.
The Dahiyeh doctrine, as it came to be known, was premised on the perceived necessity of destroying civilian infrastructure used by enemy guerilla forces in order to paralyze and defeat them. In the years that followed, a group of senior ex-military officials, including Eiland, continued to develop the thinking that underlies this doctrine. In a 2008 paper, Eiland insisted that any future war on Israel’s northern front would lead to “the elimination of the Lebanese military, the destruction of the national infrastructure and intense suffering among the population.”
Egyptian Army Soldiers stand guard at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
Renewed relevance of the Eiland Plan
In recent weeks, these ideas appear to have gained a new lease on life. Amidst the ongoing Israeli military assault on Gaza, Eiland has found an opportunity to combine his military strategy, which emphasizes the disproportionate and intentional destruction of civilian infrastructure and populations, and his proposal to forcibly transfer Palestinians to Sinai into a single vision.
In an op-ed published by the Israeli Fathom journal, Eiland wrote that the attack by Hamas on Israel, which resulted in more than 1,400 Israeli deaths and the capture of more than 200 prisoners, is unlike anything Israel has experienced in its 75-year history. To prevent a reprise, he asserted, Hamas must be crushed.
Eiland believes that a much-anticipated Israeli ground offensive into Gaza will be too costly, as the IDF might find it difficult to defeat 20,000 Hamas fighters while simultaneously dealing with other fronts opened up by Iran and Hezbollah. Israel’s safest option, therefore, is what Eiland calls a “dramatic, continuous and strict siege over Gaza.”
According to Eiland, the 16-year siege that preceded this war was not tight enough. He argues that Israel was naive, or even stupid, to believe that it could allow the limited passage of materials into Gaza, as well as Gazans into Israel for work. Instead, Israel should encourage Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip altogether. “[T]he people of Gaza will have to leave — either temporarily or permanently — via the border with Egypt,” he writes. “When the people have evacuated, and the only ones left in Gaza are Hamas, and when food [and] water [have] run out — and we can also bomb the water facilities in Gaza so there will be no water — then at some point Hamas will either be completely destroyed or surrender or agree to evacuate Gaza just as Arafat was forced to leave Beirut after an Israeli siege.”
In another op-ed published on the Israeli Ynetnews website, Eiland writes that creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza will compel “tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf.” Ideally, he continued, such an evacuation would include the “entire population” of Gaza.
While it is hard to determine how much influence retired generals like Eiland have over Israel’s war cabinet, the tactics used by the IDF in its current assault on Gaza appear to align with much of what he has prescribed. Israel has collectively punished more than two million Palestinians in Gaza by blocking deliveries of food, water, medicine and fuel to residents of the strip. And it has ordered the evacuation of more than one million Palestinians from the northern part of the strip to the south. According to Nimer Sultany, a Palestinian who teaches public law at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies, there are four towns in the north of Gaza that have almost been erased following the Israeli attack: Gaza City, Jabalia, Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiyya. He said that such actions constitute forced displacement through genocide, explaining that the definition of genocide includes the partial or complete destruction of a group of people based on their national, racial, ethnic, or religious identity.
The genocidal language of Israel's extremist far-right
“There are roots to expelling Palestinians in Zionism,” Sultany says, emphasizing that in periods of tension, the Israeli public increasingly buys into such actions by their far-right government. “A war that is framed in existentialist terms creates a window of opportunity for the expulsion of Palestinians,” he says.
According to Sultany, the Israeli army seeks to target infrastructure across Gaza in order to destroy any armed resistance — an approach that is consistent with the Dahiyeh doctrine. But doing so also violates international law, particularly in regards to Israel’s obligation to respond proportionately and to protect civilians — an obligation that is still applicable in the context of an occupation. With Western nations largely showing complete support for Israel, the road is being paved for mass displacement.
Eiland’s recommendations, which combine a deliberately induced humanitarian crisis with a program of expulsion, have also been reproduced by other strategists in Israel.
Some believe Palestinians will eventually leave, especially those with employment opportunities elsewhere.
In a paper published last week by the right-wing Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, Rafael BenLevi argues that an entire generation living in Gaza today was raised on Hamas’ ideology. Even if Hamas is destroyed, he says, there will still be hostility emanating from Gaza towards Israel. Therefore, Israel will not succeed in installing a compliant governing authority in Gaza — as it has done in the West Bank with the State of Palestine. For that reason, the only solution for Israel is to “drive the Gazan population into Sinai and to launch an international initiative to accept displaced people from Gaza in foreign countries.” To achieve this result, the US should pressure Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and other countries to facilitate the transfer of Palestinian refugees from Gaza, BenLevi concludes.
“The genocidal language in [Israel today] means a complete descent into hell,” says Levy. “This is part of the permanent removal of Palestinians from this tiny part of historic Palestine.” He describes what is happening in Gaza as something “quantitatively and qualitatively different, in terms of the blood, the displacement and the Western support.”
And the displacement scenario could extend to other places. “Those who opposed [Israeli] withdrawal from Gaza saw that, by removing over two million Palestinians from the demographic spatial consideration, it makes it easier to imagine [replicating such] a scenario,” says Levy. “Annexation and nakba elsewhere are more realistic goals now.”
Levy suggests that mass arrests, administrative detentions and killings in the West Bank might be accompanied by even more Israeli operations, aimed at causing further Palestinian displacement beyond the Gaza Strip.
A deeply uncertain future for Gazans
Prior to the Hamas incursion and its aftermath, there were already milder efforts underway to induce Palestinian resettlement from the Gaza Strip. “Before this last war, Egypt was setting up 1260 km for investment and industrial projects, where Palestinians from Gaza can come and work,” says Masry. “This is why the port of Arish was being set up, as well as the airport. This is not necessarily a migration project, but as they say, wayn btorzo’ btolzo’ (where you make money, you stay).”
According to Masry, however, the current war will surely derail this plan now, prompting Israel to find another way to fulfill its goal of displacing Palestinians from Gaza. “If in the past, the maximum attempt was to enlarge the strip for Palestinians,” he says, “now, the minimum Israel will go for is to make it smaller by installing buffer zones that people will not be allowed to live in, such as in the north of the strip. This is the alternative to outright displacement.”
Yet, Masry still believes that deliberations over the old plan were put on the table during the first phase of American shuttle diplomacy when U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was sent to the region on October 12. At any rate, if the war persists for a long time, Masry and others believe that Palestinians will eventually leave, especially those with employment opportunities elsewhere.
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