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Why Sinai is so sensitive in Egypt-Israel ties

Why Sinai is so sensitive in Egypt-Israel ties
6 min read
16 November, 2023
In-depth: Several bloody wars were fought between Egypt and Israel over the strategic peninsula, with Israel briefly building settlements there during its 15-year occupation.

When Israel briefly contemplated resettling Gaza’s civilian population in Egypt’s neighbouring Sinai Peninsula, it was met with firm and predictable backlash from the Egyptian government and the general public.

After all, Egypt historically fought several bloody wars with Israel over the strategic peninsula, and Israel even briefly started settling parts of the area in the latter stage of its 15-year occupation.

A document drafted by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry dated 13 October surfaced in the Israeli press early in the ongoing Israel-Hamas War. It suggested, among other things, that one course of action Israel could take in Gaza is moving the Palestinian enclave’s civilian population into northern Sinai, where they would reside in tent cities which could eventually develop into more permanent settlements.

Those new population centres would also be separated from the Israeli border by a “sterile” buffer zone inside Egyptian territory.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi promptly denounced the proposal, quipping that Israel should instead use the Negev Desert within its own borders if it wanted to undertake such an initiative.

Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office told Israeli media the document merely summarised “initial thoughts” and was not something under serious consideration.

Still, given the brief history of Israeli settlements in Sinai, Cairo’s response was hardly surprising.

Israel conquered Sinai, along with Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. It relinquished control over that peninsula 15 years later, following the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979.

However, during that lengthy occupation, Israel built as many as 18 settlements on Egyptian soil.

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Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Dayan even proposed building a new Israeli port city southwest of Gaza inside Sinai called Yamit. He envisioned the city’s population growing to 250,000 by 2000 if Israel ended up controlling Sinai indefinitely.

Even at that time, Israel’s cabinet was divided, with critics warning such settlements constituted “creeping annexationism” and would complicate any prospects for peace.

Israel even began building a luxury hotel in Egypt’s Taba, near the border and south of the Israeli city of Eilat.

Yamit’s population ultimately peaked at 2,500, a far cry from the 250,000 Dayan envisioned. A few diehard followers of the hardline Rabbi Meir Kahane briefly held out in an air raid shelter, defying orders from the Israeli military to vacate, with some even threatening to commit suicide rather than surrender.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, believes memories of these historic Israeli settlements play a minor role in Egypt’s present sensitivities over Sinai and the situation in Gaza.

An Israeli bulldozer tears down apartment buildings on 8 March 1982 in the Sinai Desert settlement of Yamit, as part of Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. [Getty]

“Their duration was very brief - the settlements began in the mid-1970s, and from 1979, it was clear they would be uprooted, which they duly were in 1982,” Orton told The New Arab.

“The settlements were also very small and based in a peripheral zone of Egypt that is, with its tiny and more tribal population, somewhat detached from the urban centres that dominate Egypt’s national life,” he said.

On the other hand, Orton argues that the more “lasting memories” of the Sinai settlements are on the Israeli side.

“For some right-wing Israelis - both the secular-security types and the religious millenarians - the removal of the Sinai settlements was the beginning of Israel accepting a land-for-peace premise that they view as having proven deleterious,” Orton said.

In their view, the withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, which Israel had occupied since 1982, and Gaza in 2005, when Israel withdrew all its troops and 8,000 settlers, did not lead to anything like the “cold peace” it got from Cairo.

The brief resistance by the Kahanists in Yamit in 1982 has not left any “meaningful legacy” in Israel since it proved futile. Yamit was evacuated according to plan, as was Gaza with its much larger and more established settlements 23 years later.

“If there is a lesson from the Sinai and Gaza experiences, it is that the settlements are more of a political problem than a practical one,” Orton said.

Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, believes Egypt’s present sensitivities over the prospect of refugees settling in Sinai stem more from the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”) of 1948, which he notes is “very well understood” amongst the Egyptian public.

“There are serious concerns that Palestinian refugees, based on this history, will never return to Gaza once Israel assumes control of the territory,” Bohl told The New Arab.

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There are also more “immediate economic drivers” and Egypt’s general inability to host a mass influx of refugees by itself. On the security front, Cairo would undoubtedly worry militants could infiltrate Sinai with the refugees and use it for border attacks against Israel.

Orton also argued the Egyptian government’s primary motives for not wanting to host Gazan refugees are “present and prosaic”.

Any proposal for relocating Gazans from the enclave, even if intended as a temporary measure, is widely seen as a mere pretext for ethnic cleansing or even a second Nakba in the region. For Egypt, association with any such endeavour is “politically toxic”.

“For a government as unpopular as Sisi’s, maintaining its side of the blockade on Gaza is troublesome enough,” Orton said.

Israeli soldiers guard a position in the Sinai desert on 22 October 1973. [Getty]

“At the same time, the nationalist and anti-Muslim Brotherhood layer of the population that Sisi rode to power is resistant to the idea of bringing in Palestinians seen as more inclined to Islamism, not to mention the risk of Hamas infiltrating with the refugees,” he added.

In Orton’s view, the historical episodes and precedents that likely give Egypt pause about allowing in Palestinian refugees are the instability Jordan and Lebanon faced in the past, such as Black September and the infamously brutal Lebanese civil war.

These precedents “likely looms larger” on the minds of Egyptian leaders “than the dozen or so settlements Israel set up in the Sinai for a couple of years half-a-century ago”.

Bohl believes a broad comparison can be made with Israel’s past occupation. Back then, Israel seized the territory largely to establish a buffer zone against Egypt and later proved willing to trade it away when that was “no longer the way” to guarantee its security.

“In other words, it held Sinai to defend against Egypt until it no longer needed to defend against Egypt,” Bohl said.

“Gaza may be approached the same way: it will be held by Israel until Israel believes it can trade away its control to a Palestinian group that won’t threaten its security,” he added.

“But that may be years away.”

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon