Eytan Uliel

One Week Later, Part Two: The twisted logic of (not) helping refugees

In early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. No warnings were given for civilians to evacuate. There was intense bombing and a subsequent ground invasion. And in the first week of that war, about two million Ukrainian civilians were displaced and became refugees. By May 2022, that number had increased to six million.

So, what happened to the Ukrainian refugees? Well, Europe opened its doors. Western European countries provided humanitarian aid and rapidly deployed resources to set up tent camps and provide essential services. In a matter of weeks and months, millions of Ukrainians were relocated to locations all across Europe, some to spots thousands of miles away, pending the end of the war and their ability to return home safely (yet to happen). Even in Montpellier, southern France, in my step-son’s otherwise all-French primary school, there are a few Ukrainian kids whose families were taken in by the town.

This past week, in Gaza City, one million Palestinians were warned to leave by the IDF, and told to move to the southern part of Gaza so as to avoid the impending battle in the north. Gaza is a small place, so in reality that means these people need to move about 25 kilometers southward. Yet according to Hamas, various NGOs and many media commentators, this number of people moving this kind of distance simply can’t be done in the context of Gaza. It is “impossible”, “collective punishment” on the part of the Israelis, a “war crime”, “ethnic cleansing”, and the old catch-all that invariably get rolled out at times like this, some form of attempted “genocide”.

But in all of this, why is it only now that people have begun asking what to me seems like a fairly obvious question: where is the support for refugees from the other Arab states?

Egypt shares a land border with Gaza. Surely, by now, we should have heard that Egypt is throwing open the border and will take in whoever they can, in the same way Poland threw open its border and took in almost one million Ukrainian refugees at short notice. But no – Egypt has in fact repeatedly made clear that their position is the exact opposite: they will not be allowing any Palestinians refugees in. Nor will Jordan, or Syria, or any of the other Arab countries. To quote Jordan’s King Hussein: “on the issue of refugees coming to Jordan – and I think I can quite strongly speak on behalf of not only Jordan as a nation but of our friends in Egypt – that is a red line”.

Isn’t that a bit messed up? Why aren’t the neighbors taking in Palestinian refugees?

Well, four reasons seem to have variously been offered up.

First, Egypt’s President El-Sisi made the point that Egypt already has 8.5 million refugees, the inference being that this is more than enough, as any more refugees would overwhelm the system. Which, on the face of it, sounds logical.

But, as is so often the case, it helps to question the basics. And in this case, it seems that just about every international refugee agency out there says that Egypt has roughly 300,000 registered refugees. So even if you allow for a lot of unregistered refugees as well, it still seems that Egypt’s President is telling a pretty big porky to justify his position.

[From a Brooking Institute report in 2016, when the number of Egyptian refugees at that time was cited as being 5 million: “So whatever the reality of the actual numbers of refugees in Egypt, the key to the 5 million number lies in the government’s reference to refugees and immigrants. These figures in the millions have been around for decades, largely referring to Sudanese immigrants. A Carnegie piece from 1999 note the presence of 3 million Sudanese, while a 2006 American University in Cairo report mentions that Egyptian officials quote between 3 and 4 million, and the Canadian government has stated 2-5 million as does a 2011 report from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)”]

Second, Egypt, Jordan and others are saying they will not take in Palestinian refugees at this time because history suggests that if they do, the refugees might become permanent and never return to Gaza, and Israel might also then see this as carte blanche to begin evicting people from the West Bank.

As per Egypt’s President El-Sisi, any mass influx of refugees from Gaza would set a precedent for “the displacement of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan… subsequently, the Palestinian state that we are talking about and that the world is talking about will become impossible to implement — because the land is there, but the people are not.

And, as if to support the argument, it is also pointed out that the people in Gaza today are largely the descendants of refugees from 1948 who never “went home”, QED. It being left unsaid of course that the “home” they should have gone back to is what is now Israel, and therefore their “going home” would by definition have only been possible if Israel had ceased to exist. But, I digress.

Rather, think for a moment about how messed up the underpinning logic here is. Because essentially, what is being said is that even though countries in the region know they could take immediate steps that would help reduce the suffering of Palestinian refugees, they have consciously decided that their suffering should continue because there is a chance that the alternative will create longer term undesirable political consequences.

I mean, imagine the uproar if a year ago Germany, France and Poland had said “no, we aren’t going to offer shelter to any Ukrainian refugees, because when the war is over, well, we’re worried they may not go back”. Surely, the very concept of humanitarian aid means you deal with helping people first, and then deal with the various possible outcomes later.

[A slightly more cynical view is that countries in the region see greater value in the horrible images on TV of Palestinians suffering than in actually alleviating that suffering. Or that Jordan, a country where a Hashemite minority rules on the back of a Palestinian majority, doesn’t really want to import any problems. But again, I digress…]

Then there is the third reason advanced for “no refugees”, which only emerged today when, in a press conference with the German Chancellor, Egypt’s President El-Sisi made the suggestion that Israel should take all the Palestinian refugees from Gaza and temporarily house them in Israel’s Negev desert: “Palestinians could be moved there until Israel is finished with what it has declared is an operation to eliminate armed groups [from Gaza], and then it could return them if it wished.

But then asked why the same could not be said of Egypt’s Sinai desert, President El-Sisi said that such a course of action would “move the idea of resistance, of combat, from the Gaza Strip to Sinai, and so Sinai would become the base for launching operations against Israel…. if we allow Palestinians to cross in large numbers potentially there could be terrorist operations against Israel and Israel can strike back.

Does no-one else see how utterly twisted this is? Because basically Egypt’s President has said openly that Palestinian refugees carry with them the risk of terrorists mingling in with the crowd, which is why he won’t have them. But nonetheless, Israel should.

In other words, his brilliant idea is that in the middle of a war, in which Israel is engaged in a fight to get rid of terrorists in Gaza who are hell bent on Israel’s destruction, the Israelis should nonetheless give some of those terrorists safe-harbor inside of Israel itself. A self-evidently absurd position, although that didn’t stop it being widely reported, without so much as a critical question being asked.

And then the final reason: “it’s someone else’s problem”. As reported in today’s Telegraph: “Europe should take in the one million people trying to flee Gaza if it cares “about human rights so much”, a senior Egyptian official reportedly told a European counterpart. “You want us to take one million people? Well, I am going to send them to Europe. You care about human rights so much – well, you take them,” said the unidentified official. The comment, first reported by the Financial Times, was made amid media reports suggesting the Egyptian government is refusing to accept the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in northern Sinai.

Which, as reasons go, is probably the most honest of them all, but one I find very hard to fathom. I mean, there are 15 million or so Jews around the world, and virtually every person I know has instantly mobilized to support Israel in her hour of need. Not just at solidarity rallies and talking head fests, but in real, tangible ways. My social media is flooded with stories of help and sacrifice. People I know, from Argentina to New York to London to Tel Aviv to Singapore are raising money, sending packages, buying plane tickets for strangers to get home, donating blood. 4-year-old kids in Jewish kindergartens in Sydney and Melbourne are giving up their pocket money and sending postcards to frontline troops in Israel, to remind them they are not alone.

And inside of Israel, apart from the military mobilization that is all over the news, there has been another, almost completely unreported but equally huge national mobilization, to temporarily shelter and rehouse the 500,000 or so Israelis who have also been displaced due to the current conflict.

In any case, my central question remains: where is the equivalent in the Arab world? Why aren’t Arab and Muslim countries – some of them dripping in money from oil wealth – doing a bit more? Why does it seem like the only thing being mobilized by those who should be the first in line to help the Palestinian refugees right now is hatred of Israel and public outrage?

Let me stress: I am not trying to minimize the suffering of Palestinian refugees – life for them at the moment is truly horrible. And in no way am I trying to say “well, if the Arabs won’t help their own, that means Israel has free reign to do whatever it likes.

Rather, I am simply trying to point out what, at least to me, seem like reasonably obvious statements, which are (i) mass displacement of innocent civilians is and always has been an unfortunate and tragic fact of any war, (ii) the mere fact of this happening isn’t ipso facto proof of wrongdoing or war crimes, and (iii) Arab and Muslim countries, while predictably outraged, are comparatively speaking doing bugger-all to help their own, which at the very minimum is kind of puzzling.

So, next time someone rails about the heinous behavior of the Israelis and the misery being inflicted on those in Gaza who have become refugees as a result of this war, try asking them: “apart from shouting ‘Free Palestine’ and burning Israeli flags, what are you actually doing to help those you say you support?” Because if someone is going to level accusations against Israel of the worst types of conduct humans are capable of – “war crimes”, “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” –I think they should at least come to the conversation with a bit more substance than slogans and outrage.

About the Author
Eytan Uliel is an Australian-Israeli writer, wanderer and global traveler. After graduating from the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, he practiced corporate law for several years, before moving on to a career in investment banking, private equity, and oil and gas finance. An extensive work travel schedule has taken Eytan to every corner of the globe – over 85 countries, and counting. His blog – The Road Warrior – chronicles these journeys through a series of short stories and essays, some of which have been republished in various magazines and newspapers. He is also the author of two award winning books. Eytan was born in Jerusalem, and has lived in South Africa, Australia, Singapore, the UK, The Bahamas, the USA and France.
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