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Transferring the peaceful inhabitants of the Gaza sector to Middle Eastern Arab countries could potentially lead to a substantial decrease in the number of accidental casualties in the ongoing conflict between HAMAS and Israel. Nonetheless, historical grievances, economic factors, and anti-Israeli sentiments hinder these nations' leaders from welcoming Palestinian refugees.

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Content
  • Egypt: the economy will be unable to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees

  • Jordan: fears infiltration of terrorists along with refugees

  • Syria: the Palestinians should build their state on their own land

  • Lebanon: an impoverished country teetering on the brink of being drawn into a war

Egypt: the economy will be unable to cope with hundreds of thousands of refugees

“You keep guard dogs on a leash in your yard, not in your bedroom. Because they should threaten your enemies, not your children. To our neighbors, we are like fierce dogs that should be by Israel's side, not in their homes,” explained Mahmoud, the driver, using an Eastern metaphor to illustrate Egypt's reluctance to open the Rafah border crossing and allow the caravan of refugees from the Gaza Strip onto its territory.

In 2012, the “Pillar of Cloud” operation was in full swing. During this operation, the Israeli army aimed to destroy HAMAS rocket depots and thus put an end to the constant shelling of Israeli cities. At that time, there was no need for Israeli troops to enter Gaza as the objectives were accomplished through airstrikes and guided missiles. However, the level of firepower and destruction was so significant that thousands of residents in the region, including Mahmoud in his old Toyota, decided to abandon their homes and seek refuge in neighboring Egypt. Unfortunately, Cairo never granted them permission to cross the border. As a goodwill gesture, Egypt only allowed a few ambulance vehicles carrying seriously ill or severely injured Gaza residents to enter.

Interestingly, at that time Egypt was under the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, who came to power as a result of the 2011 revolution. Morsi was a member of the Islamist movement “The Muslim Brotherhood,” while HAMAS, ruling in Gaza, was initially the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian “Brothers.” However, even the close ideological ties between the Egyptian president and the ruling elite in the Gaza Strip couldn't compel Cairo to open its borders to Palestinian refugees.

If even the de facto “party member” of HAMAS, Morsi, couldn't bring himself to allow Palestinians into his country, no one expected the same from the current Egyptian president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi, who assumed power in 2013 following a coup, incarcerated his predecessor and proscribed the activities of “The Muslim Brotherhood.” Subsequently, a court entirely under the control of the Egyptian government sentenced Mohammed Morsi to death for state treason. The verdict asserted that the ousted president acted in the interests of several foreign organizations, some of which allegedly aimed to subjugate Egypt, with HAMAS being among them. Despite Cairo's recent rapprochement with the authorities in Gaza, this reconciliation did not influence Egyptians' willingness to open the Rafah border crossing for Palestinians. Even during relatively peaceful times, the crossing was only open for a few weeks a year, and obtaining permission to cross it from Egyptian immigration services could take months. This is partially because Rafah connects the Gaza Strip to North Sinai, the most unstable region in Egypt. Since the 1950s, this desolate peninsula, barely controlled by the authorities, has become a refuge for a variety of lawbreakers, ranging from smugglers to Islamists outlawed on a regular basis.

Egypt has been in a war against the latter for 11 years now, since the Arab Spring. In Sinai, the regular army faces a diverse alliance of jihadists, including members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who found themselves at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, representatives of local Bedouin tribes, and who knows who else. Clearly, in Cairo, there's an understanding that if HAMAS fighters were to cross the open border into Sinai, they would more likely align with ideologically kindred rebels and jihadists than with the official authorities.

However, the potential economic problems stemming from opening the borders certainly worry Sisi and his government more than the possible influx of HAMAS fighters joining the jihadists. Egypt's economic growth significantly lags behind its population growth. A new Egyptian is born every 14 seconds, with the country's population increasing from around 65 million in 2000 to 105 million in 2023. In September of this year, President Sisi even expressed readiness for the state to take control of birth rates. Without this, he warned, the country could face an economic collapse in the coming years, and perhaps even a new revolution.

Economic problems stemming from opening the borders certainly worry Sisi and his government more than the possible influx of HAMAS fighters joining the jihadists

In such a situation, allowing hundreds of thousands of refugees into the country, who would require housing, food, medical assistance, and eventually employment, is something Sisi simply cannot afford, especially considering the presidential elections scheduled for December. While Egyptian elections may lack unpredictability and alternatives, Sisi has no desire to face mass protests by disgruntled Egyptians over expenditures on refugee aid just before his ritual reelection, especially when the country's citizens are suffering from rising prices, unemployment, a shortage of hospitals and schools, and various other hardships.

Sisi cannot openly state to the Palestinians that he is unwilling to further strain his already inflation-riddled budget for them. He is constrained by the notion of pan-Arab solidarity and the carefully cultivated image of being a defender of the common people. Hence, the rhetoric that has been tested and refined over the years is used, emphasizing the need for every Palestinian to fight for their own state.

Official Cairo explicitly states that the residents of the Gaza Strip should not seek refuge in other countries; instead, they should focus on building an independent Palestinian state on their own territory and not rely on assistance from foreign governments. To avoid sounding inconsiderate toward the peaceful residents of Gaza, the Egyptian government suggests relocating refugees to the Israeli Negev Desert during times of conflict, which is also adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Jordan: fears infiltration of terrorists along with refugees

Jordan's leadership adopts a similar position. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan does not share a direct border with the Gaza Strip but does have a border with another Palestinian territory, the West Bank. In theory, Israel could facilitate a corridor for Gazans to reach the West Bank, from where they could potentially enter Jordan. In fact, this was the plan that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz brought to the Middle East this week. However, upon arrival, King Abdullah II of Jordan promptly rejected this proposal.

“I believe I can now speak not only on behalf of the Jordanian government but also on behalf of our Egyptian friends: no refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt... This is a situation that must be resolved within Gaza and the West Bank. You cannot shift it onto the shoulders of others,” the monarch stated quite unequivocally.

The Jordanian monarchy has historically complex relations with Palestinians in general and with refugees in particular. After World War I, the territory of present-day Jordan became part of the so-called “Mandatory Palestine,” a quasi-state entity governed by Britain. In 1946, Jordan (then called Transjordan) gained independence, and the remaining territory of Mandatory Palestine under British control was supposed to be divided between the Jewish and Arab states.

This division, to a large extent, never happened, and a genuinely independent Palestinian state still does not exist. A part of the territory designated for a Palestinian state – the West Bank of the Jordan River, including Jerusalem – was under Jordanian rule from 1949 to 1967. Jordan lost control over these territories during the Six-Day War with Israel.

However, the kingdom officially renounced its claims to the lost lands in favor of the future Palestinian state. Nevertheless, until the late 1980s, representatives from the West Bank sat in the Jordanian parliament, and many residents of the region still held Jordanian passports.

As a result, the distinctions between Palestinians and Jordanians became so blurred that it allowed right-wing Israeli politicians and their allies in the US and Europe to assert that Jordan was, in fact, the Arab Palestinian state that was supposed to emerge after the division of the British mandate territories.

This position was upheld, for example, by Itzhak Shamir, who served as the Prime Minister of Israel twice in the 1980s and 1990s. He insisted that negotiations for a peaceful settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should also include Jordanian officials. He considered them the legitimate representatives of the Arab population of the West Bank of Jordan. This is not even the most radical position.

From time to time, right-wing politicians in Israel call for the relocation of all Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to Jordan and resettling both of these regions with Jews. In their view, Jordan is the Palestinian state, and therefore, Palestinians should live there.

Right-wing politicians view Jordan as the Palestinian state, and therefore, Palestinians should live there

This is despite the fact that relations between Palestinians and Jordanians have never been trouble-free. Every Arab-Israeli war, starting with the very first conflict that erupted shortly after the establishment of modern Israel in 1948, led to an influx of Palestinian refugees into Jordan. It was in Jordan that organizations, including terrorist ones, that aimed to drive Jews out of the Middle East, established their headquarters.

Among the many Palestinian movements and factions that found refuge in Jordan, some called for the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy, which they perceived as being too lenient and accommodating towards Israel. The most desperate radicals even made several assassination attempts on King Hussein, the father of the current ruler, Abdullah II. Hussein survived and, in 1970, launched an attack against Palestinian groups that had completely slipped out of his control.

The confrontation between the Jordanian army and the Palestinians lasted for about six months and initially had varying degrees of success. At one point, the Palestinians even managed to take control of a part of Jordan's territory. This was largely due to the fact that several thousand soldiers and officers of the regular Syrian army fought on their side. They removed their Syrian insignia and attached the symbols of Palestinian groups, creating something akin to the “people's armies of the LNR and DNR” but with a Middle Eastern flavor. The Syrians, by the way, never explained why they got involved in someone else's war and continue to deny their involvement, despite clear evidence.

In the end, the Jordanian army launched an offensive and forced the Palestinians to agree to a ceasefire. The Jordanian authorities demanded that all armed groups leave the country. Palestinians were allowed to leave for Syria and from there to Lebanon, taking their equipment and weapons with them. Between 100,000 and 150,000 Palestinian refugees, not associated with terrorist groups, went to neighboring countries. Some of them left for Syria or Lebanon out of concern for their safety, but there were also those whom their Jordanian neighbors forcibly expelled.

In general, the memories of the war with the Palestinians are enough for the current king, who was born in 1962, to be a strong opponent of accepting refugees from the Gaza Strip. If you add to this the economic instability, the constant threat from armed groups operating in neighboring Iraq and Syria, who will surely want to bolster their ranks with HAMAS members, as well as the fear that an influx of Palestinians will make the idea of “Jordan is Palestine” relevant again, which is already dangerous for the fragile national identity, then Abdullah II's position becomes completely understandable.

Syria: the Palestinians should build their state on their own land

Well, what about the Syrians? Perhaps Bashar al-Assad's regime would be willing to accept the peaceful residents of Gaza? After all, without the Palestinians, his dynasty might not even exist. The failed operation in Jordan, commanded by Syrian soldiers in disguise, was led by the father of the current Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad. In 1970, he was the Minister of Defense in Syria, and it is quite likely that he could have paid the price for Jordan's defeat with his position, freedom, or even his life. However, the elder Hafez did not wait for his imminent arrest. He acted preemptively, overthrew the government in which he himself served, and became the new head of state.

In this capacity, he was an uncompromising champion of the Palestinian cause for all thirty years he spent in the presidential seat. He passed on his unwavering commitment to his son, Bashar, who took the helm of the state after his father's death in 2000. Detractors argue that their aggressive pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel rhetoric, sometimes bordering on outright anti-Semitism, is not a sincere belief but a calculated tactic of the Assads, one of the main foundations of their legitimacy.

The fact is, the Assads are Alawites, members of a small, secretive sect whose religious beliefs constitute a complex mixture of Shiite Islam, Gnostic Christianity, and Greek philosophy. In the Arab world and particularly in Syria, where Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population, Alawites are considered dangerous heretics. In order for representatives of this sect to maintain power in a country where they are viewed as enemies of Islam, they need a non-religious but highly significant source of legitimacy. The Assads found this source in the idea of the annihilation of Israel, still very popular in the Arab world. Both Hafez and Bashar, at every opportunity, portrayed themselves as defenders of the Muslim world against the alleged Jewish threat hanging over it. For the Assads, any chance to be seen as protectors of the Muslim world from the supposed Jewish menace was used to solidify their grip on power.

This is why, in 2012, the author of these lines, who met with Bashar al-Assad in his Damascus residence, had to listen to the Syrian president's openly conspiratorial reasoning that ISIS had been created and armed by Israel to destroy Arab states, and only the Syrian army was saving the Middle East from a terrible doom.

However, the uncompromisingly anti-Israel stance of the Assads does nothing to ease the plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees already living in Syria. Neither these refugees nor their children and grandchildren born in Syria are granted Syrian citizenship. They live separately from Syrians in their own settlements and neighborhoods. Often, even the already less-than-stellar Syrian healthcare and education systems are not readily accessible to them. The unemployment rate among Palestinians is many times higher than that among the native population. In general, the Syrian authorities do everything to ensure that Palestinians do not feel at home in Syria. This is done quite deliberately – the Assad regime tolerates these people in its country only because their expulsion would exacerbate already strained relations with the Arab world.

The Syrian authorities do everything to ensure that Palestinians do not feel at home in Syria

Officially, this attitude towards refugees is explained in the best traditions of Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi and King Abdullah II: Palestinians should not expect favors from the rulers of other countries but should return to their land and build their own state.

After the start of the civil war in Syria in 2011, around 160,000 local Palestinians out of approximately 500,000 living in the country at that time were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in more peaceful regions or neighboring states. In other words, they became refugees for the second time. The death toll among Palestinians in the Syrian war numbers in the thousands. Among these victims are many who were killed by the Syrian army or intelligence services on suspicion of involvement with rebel groups.

In a conflict which rapidly took on a sectarian character, merely being a Sunni Muslim often sufficed to arouse suspicion from the regime's forces. Consequently, Palestinians, who are predominantly Sunni, have often been victims of the “witch hunt.”

The evident anti-Sunni bias in the actions of the government's army and intelligence services led to HAMAS closing its representation in Damascus in 2012 in protest against such practices. However, by 2022, Assad and the ruling Gaza faction announced the resumption of their relations.

Nevertheless, this warming of ties has had no impact on the situation of Palestinian refugees in Syria. They continue to face discrimination, and due to ongoing hostilities and government raids targeting Sunnis, their lives are hardly any safer than in Gaza. Furthermore, Palestinians, despite not having the right to Syrian citizenship, are subject to conscription into the Syrian army. It's no exaggeration to say that a significant portion of the refugees faced a choice: either join the Syrian army or become victims of that very army.

Palestinians, despite not having the right to Syrian citizenship, are subject to conscription into the Syrian army

All of the above— the authorities' clear reluctance to deal with refugees already living in their country, the ongoing war, and discrimination—make Syria an extremely unlikely destination for peaceful residents of Gaza. Moreover, Syria has no borders with Palestinian territories and no official relations with Israel, without whose involvement resolving the issue of resettling thousands of Palestinians is impossible.

Lebanon: an impoverished country teetering on the brink of being drawn into a war

A system of discrimination against Palestinian refugees similar to the Syrian regime also exists in Lebanon. The local Palestinians live separately from the native population, have no right to obtain citizenship, and are likewise limited in access to monetary and social benefits. This isn't surprising, considering that Lebanon was under Syrian occupation from 1976 to 2005, and the occupiers brought their own practices with them.

Furthermore, the Syrian army's invasion into the neighboring country was carried out under the pretext of restraining Palestinian militant groups, whose uncontrolled activities were one of the main factors that sparked the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Thus, Hafez al-Assad managed to support the Palestinians in Jordan and oppose them in Lebanon.

Given that Palestinian militant organizations ended up in Lebanon after being expelled from Jordan, it can be concluded that Assad was fighting against his recent allies. The Lebanese government is clearly not inclined to add the care of Gaza refugees to its many problems, such as the ongoing economic crisis, the inability of political forces to form a responsible government, soaring unemployment and inflation rates.

Without statements in the spirit of Egypt and Jordan's leaders, it's clear that this impoverished country, torn apart by countless internal conflicts, teetering on the brink of being drawn into a war against Israel on the side of HAMAS, is simply not prepared to become a home, if only a temporary one, for thousands of people fleeing from conflict.

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