Cairo denies plans for a Palestinian state in Sinai
The Gaza Post|The News of Palestine-Cairo
Cairo denies Plans for a Palestinian state in Sinai which shares its north-eastern borders with Gaza and Israel, has focused on the military campaign to eradicate militant groups and the tragic impact of the war on northern Sinai’s citizens.
But recent and repeated references to the peninsula as a possible homeland for Palestinians have shifted attention to a long-standing plan, promoted mainly by the Israeli right wing and now allegedly supported by US President Donald Trump, which posits land in Sinai as a central component of a deal to end the decades old Arab-Israeli conflict. As Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press on Tuesday, US President Donald Trump had notified several Arab leaders over the phone that he intended to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
According to The New York Times Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was offered a deal last month, via the Saudis, to compensate Palestinians for lost West Bank territory by adding land in Sinai to Gaza, thus creating a Palestinian state. Western officials told the American newspaper the idea had already been rejected by Egypt.
The paper said the offer has alarmed Palestinians and raised suspicions about Trump’s plans to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Last month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi denied rumours Egypt would cede territory to the Palestinians as part of the so-called US deal: “No one in Egypt can do that. The solution to the Palestinian question will not be at Egypt’s expense,” he said.
On 10 November Gila Gamliel, Israel’s minister for social equality, sparked angry reactions among Egyptians and Palestinians ahead of a visit to Cairo when she was quoted saying: “It is appropriate that parts of the Arab countries, such as the Sinai Peninsula, should be considered” for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Gamliel flew to Cairo last week to represent Israel in a regional conference on gender equality.
In response Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Cairo had conveyed its complete rejection of such statements to the Israeli ambassador to Egypt.
Egypt firmly rejects any kind of “talk or thoughts” that undermine Egypt’s territorial sovereignty, Shoukri said in a TV interview. “Land in Sinai, watered with the blood of our sons and martyrs, is not something that can be given away or allowed to be attacked.”
But that is not the view within Israel’s right-wing government.
In February Israeli minister Ayoub Kara said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump would discuss a plan to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and Sinai and not in the West Bank. Kara, a Likud MP, claimed the proposal had been put forward by Al-Sisi in 2014. But Kara soon retracted his statements, conceding they reflected his own analysis and were not based on any factual information.
The Israeli press has nonetheless continued to publish alleged leaks about Egyptian proposals to cede territory in Sinai to be annexed with Gaza and create a demilitarised Palestinian state, prompting a spokesman for Al-Sisi to deny that the question of resettling Palestinians in Sinai has ever been on the table or raised in discussions between Egypt and Arab or other international officials.
“Israel’s right wing does not believe in a two-state solution,” says former foreign minister Nabil Fahmi. It considers the Palestinian West Bank part of Israel, meaning the Palestinians need to be resettled elsewhere.
“It is a position that has been repeated hundreds of times over the last 15 years, sometimes proposed by the Americans but never accepted by Egypt,” Fahmi told the Weekly.
It surfaced during Mohamed Morsi’s year in power, lent momentum by his close ties to Hamas.
And it is resurfacing now, says Fahmi, “because the weakness of the state of the Arabs” allows for plans that divert from the peace process.
The idea of resettling Palestinians in Gaza dates to 1953. When the Strip was under Egyptian administration and the 1952 Revolution, led by military officers, was still transitioning Egypt from a monarchy to a republic the US, the Egyptian government and UNRWA agreed to tackle Gaza’s growing population problem by providing 50,000 feddans in north-western Sinai where UNRWA could move Palestinians from Gaza and resettle them. Palestinians, who saw the move as aiding and abetting the Israeli occupation, rejected the agreement. It was finally withdrawn in 1955, following massive protests.
Israel occupied Sinai in the 1967 War and built several settlements there but was forced to abandon any plans to annex the territory following the signing of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. The final agreement placed restrictions on Egypt’s military presence along the border.
The idea of resettling Palestinians in Sinai was revived in 2004 when Giora Eiland, Israel’s national security adviser, proposed a plan under which Israel would withdraw from Gaza the following year and Egyptian territory in Sinai would be annexed to Gaza in return for Israel giving Egypt land in the Negev.
Last week the BBC reported that declassified documents showed former president Hosni Mubarak had accepted a US proposal to resettle Palestinians in Egypt after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Mubarak, who was unseated in the 2011 uprising and has remained largely silent since, issued a statement on 29 November denying the allegations, adding that in 2010 Netanyahu had proposed a resettlement of Palestinians in Sinai, something Egypt flatly rejected.
Observers say the timing of the BBC’s report raises questions.
“The leaked documents do not condemn Mubarak and appear to pay political lip service to the idea of resettling Palestinians outside the two-state solution,” says Ahmed Youssef, a political science professor at Cairo University. They reveal a US proposal to Egypt in 1983 to host Palestinians from Lebanon which Mubarak said could only happen “as part of a comprehensive framework for a solution”.
Although the BBC documents refer to events three decades ago, with the New York Times report on the Saudi offer to the Palestinians and Israeli minister Gamliel’s statements on Sinai, they have caused a state of apprehension in Egypt.
“Egypt should have voiced an unequivocal position in response to these statements and Gamliel should not have been allowed to visit Cairo,” said Youssef. “But perhaps the current political climate is not suited to strongly-worded responses to Israel given joint Egyptian-Israeli efforts to combat terrorism.”