Why won't Egypt accept refugees from Gaza?

With the Israeli Defense Forces bearing down, Palestinian civilians have nowhere to go. Not even the Muslim country next door.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and King Abdullah II of Jordan
(Image credit: Illustrated / Getty Images)

Much has been made of Israel’s siege of Gaza following the attack by Hamas earlier this month. Palestinians in Gaza seemingly have nowhere to go, nowhere to flee as Israeli defense forces bear down with air attacks and a likely ground invasion to come. The strip is bordered by the Jewish state on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other. But there is one other neighbor — Egypt, a seemingly friendly Muslim nation, to the southwest.

But Egypt won’t take Gaza’s refugees.

Egypt and Jordan — which borders the separate Palestinian-governed West Bank — have given a “staunch refusal” to accept refugees during the Israel-Hamas war, The Associated Press reported. Why? Because leaders of the two countries fear that Israel wants “permanent expulsion” of the refugees from the territory it controls, an act that might “nullify Palestinian demands for statehood.” That, they say, could “wreck peace” between Israel and its neighboring states. 

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That’s a problem, though. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is “the only viable outlet” for Palestinians to escape the war, CNN reported. Egypt is facing “mounting pressure” to open its gates. “Of course we sympathize,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said. But, he added, Egypt is already home to 9 million migrants. Safety must be achieved “in a manner that doesn’t cost us much.”

What the commentators said

Egypt “can’t solve Gaza’s problems,” Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador, argued in The New York Times. The government in Cairo faces problems with extremists believed to be associated with ISIS and al-Qaida, many Palestinians oppose leaving Gaza even “as a temporary measure," and Egypt already hosts “a large population of impoverished people.” More refugees will be too big a strain. At some point, though, Egypt will have to “treat those living a few miles away as neighbors in crisis, rather than a problem to be penned in.”

There’s nowhere else to go, The Wall Street Journal editorialized. “Egypt is the only place to which Gaza’s civilians can flee for now.” The refugees would present a great challenge to Sisi, but refusing to accept the escaping Palestinians would make him at least partly responsible for  “what could become a terrible humanitarian crisis.” It is time to apply a bit of pressure: The U.S. “supplies billions of dollars in aid” to Sisi’s government. It’s “reasonable” for Washington to expect a little help.  

Sisi faces a reelection vote in December, Nosmot Gbadamosi noted at Foreign Policy. “A major refugee influx is a red line” for voters. And there is reason for Palestinians to be cautious about using Egypt as an escape from the war — there’s no guarantee they’d ever get to return home. “Displacements into Arab states in previous Israel-Palestine conflicts have been permanent.”

What next?

Where will help come from? Al Jazeera reported the results of one new poll: 78 percent of U.S. respondents agree that “American diplomats should actively be working on a plan to allow civilians fleeing fighting in Gaza to move to a safe country.” But that safe country probably won’t be Egypt — and it almost certainly won’t be the United States. The Associated Press reported that Donald Trump and other “top Republicans” want to seal U.S. borders against any influx of Gaza refugees. Even if that weren’t the case, those civilians fleeing the war probably wouldn’t make it to America in any large numbers. The U.S. technically allows as many as 125,000 refugees to enter the country each year — but the number was just half that during the last fiscal year. 

Back in Egypt, it’s not clear the situation will change soon. Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry said this week he could “see no reason” that the country should have to bear solely [the] additional influx of Gazans,” CNBC reported. The Wall Street Journal added that Sisi offered what might have been an irony-laden alternative: Rather than move refugees to his country, he said, Gazans should be allowed to settle in “the desert in southern Israel.” Perhaps some help is on the way though: Egypt will host a summit Saturday on the Palestinian question.

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