Sissi Thinks Creatively to Solve the Palestinian Refugee Problem

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Palestinian refugees rally in front of the headquarters the United Nations Relief and Works Agency demanding more services to be provided in the West Bank city of Jenin, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. Credit: AP

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi offered the Palestinians about 1,600 square kilometers near the Gaza Strip, which is only about 356 square kilometers large. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the offer out of hand.

Why? Apparently because it has elements that could help solve the refugee problem and ease the terrible overcrowding in Gaza. These are two things, especially a solution in Sinai for some of the refugees – not in Ashdod and Ashkelon – that horrify the Palestinian president.

When Sissi’s offer was made public on Army Radio, I received a text message from a key figure in the media at the time. “Could it be,” he wrote, “that Sissi took part in the Herzliya Conference a few years ago and was persuaded, despite the mocking reactions in the hall, by the remarks of a strange Israeli who talked about Egypt’s obligation to contribute a bit of its huge and empty territory to the Palestinian state?”

Back to my presentation at the Herzliya Conference. I mentioned how most Israelis, on the right as well, have been conditioned to think that Israel is the only side obligated to provide the necessary territory for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Why, I asked, don’t we demand – and complement that demand with the appropriate diplomatic activity – that Egypt and Jordan, which have huge land reserves, do their part?

They are, after all, sisters to the Palestinians in religion, origin and nationality. No less, their war in 1948 to wipe out the Jewish state led to many of the Palestinians’ territorial and demographic problems.

I suggested that Egypt, which stretches out over more than a million square kilometers (most of it unsettled), grant the Palestinians about 10,000 square kilometers. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would benefit in terms of space and economics — a deep port and recreation area at el-Arish and the Eitam airport, which Israel did not demolish when it withdrew from Sinai in 1982. And the area would be developed with the help of Israel, the West and international funds.

Even if Israel withdrew to the 1967 lines, I concluded, the Palestinians would not have enough room — the West Bank is only around 5,500 square kilometers large — for a sustainable state. A stifling lack of land would lead to turmoil that would spill over into the heart of Israel. We could persuade the Americans and the other leading international figures of the proposal’s logic. They could use their influence on (then-president) Hosni Mubarak, who is dependent on them.

Someone at the conference shouted: “The Herzliya Conference provides a platform for such absurd remarks?” (I had that platform in the following years as well.) Some averted their eyes, the way one might during an embarrassing moment at the theater. The Jordanian ambassador stood up, protested vociferously and left the room, followed by his Egyptian counterpart.

The idea has been presented in forums that dealt with the withdrawal lines in various peace plans. Most who heard it didn’t hide their opinion that the proposal was “completely unacceptable.” If that be the direction, there’s Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh’s plan, which mainly involves Egypt giving the Palestinians territory in Gaza, and Israel compensating Egypt with land in the Negev. That’s “acceptable.”

In contrast, people in seminars abroad, especially non-Jews – the rational minds of non-Jews – have not ruled out the proposal. “It is only right that Egypt grant symbolic territory to the Palestinians, living in shameful conditions in one of the most densely populated places on earth,” a leading figure in the U.S. State Department said. “But in any case,” he stressed, “Israel must withdraw to the 1967 boundaries.”

Britain’s Chatham House, the (pro-Arab) Royal Institute of International Affairs, found it worthy to invite me to present my ideas on the subject, followed by an official publication, which also included other ideas to solve the Palestinian problem.

The Israeli government has not yet officially commented on the Egyptian president’s willingness and Abbas’ rejection. It also seems that official Israel is still in shock from Sissi’s revolutionary move, which does not cease to surprise us. This time he’s willing to give territory to the Palestinians and relieve Israel of sole responsibility for the problem.

If Sissi had presented his proposal at the Herzliya Conference, it’s reasonable to assume that some participants — who are part of Israel’s security, economic, academic and political establishment — would have considered him strange, or worse.

Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi during TV interview, May 6, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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