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Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Where is Egypt in ‘Israel’s Gaza War’?

The Washington Post published a tendentious article on December 12, 2023, entitled, “Israel’s Gaza War Raises Fears of a Palestinian Exodus Into Egypt.”

Many toxic assumptions are embedded in this piece, starting with its title, which cites not the “Gaza War,” but “Israel’s” Gaza War. As if Israel initiated this war. One is invited to forget October 7.

Then there is the play on Egypt and Exodus; nothing like appropriating and reversing Jewish core narratives and experience (“Holocaust” is ever-useful), in the service of tarring Jews/ Israel.

Such distortions are hardly confined to this article, which should, despite itself, raise the question of the place of Egypt in the current crisis and a future resolution, beginning with the apparently self-evident fear, in need of no exploration, that Egypt might be expected to admit Gazans fleeing the devastation and needing immediate refuge.

Why shouldn’t Egyptian Sinai offer such refuge to Gazans, under international auspices and funding?

Gaza was Egyptian until 1967. It is not clear why Gaza was omitted from the peace deal of 1979, despite Sadat’s demand that “every inch” of Egyptian territory which Israel captured in the Six Day War be returned. This “omission,” of course, was stupidly, endlessly stupidly, done with Israel’s active consent.

It is not clear why, though it seemed self-evident that Europe and Turkey should have admitted tens of millions of Muslims fleeing war-devastated Syria, Afghanistan, and North Africa, people with no cultural, linguistic, or religious similarity to any European country or (in the first two categories), to Turkey – that no Arab state be willing to admit Gazans, fellow Muslims, Arabic speakers, now, even under the conditions stated above.

Why shouldn’t Egypt admit Gazans to Sinai, a stone’s throw across the border? Refusing this means that Gazans remain in an crowded, active war zone, in terrible conditions– and that their humanitarian needs are Israel’s primary, even sole, responsibility to undertake even at cost to its own security (calls for a ceasefire that serves Hamas while endangering Israel). This– that Israel is responsible for Gaza– is the ultimate colonialist claim– for which of course, Israel is also blamed. This bizarre colonialist imposition, and the associated pass given to Egypt and to the international community, is just another way blaming Israel’s existence for all the ill, because, of course, if Israel didn’t exist, there would be no problem in Gaza. Similar reasoning would have it that, if Jews had not existed, there would have been no Shoah.

This is sheer manipulation, with that unspoken message the more insidious for being unarticulated.

Why shouldn’t Egypt take in Gazans – and the Gulf states do so, as well? The overwhelming majority of Gulf state residents are non-Muslim slave laborers from Southeast Asia, exploited to death, often literally, with no rights whatever.

Speaking of broader responsibility– Qatar could end – and should long ago have ended the hostage obscenity – by stating: all of them, now, or not another cent. Why do we hear nothing of this? This, while Israeli soldiers have found the bodies of now, five more Israeli hostages and returned them to Israel, and while the lives of those still held are in immediate risk.

Israel is not the lord of Gaza, and Gazans are not Israel’s wards. To say that, however implicitly, is to say that 1948 was a catastrophe, the region’s Original Sin, which must be undone. That, of course, is Hamas’ position.

Israel is one of a number of entities that will have to be part of a workable solution so that this horrific cycle ends and something rational and tenable for all concerned, begins. Israel is one of these entities, with its own security its foremost concern, exactly as would be the case for any other country in Israel’s position. But it is not “the” entity responsible. Any reasoning or policy that posits, even implicitly, that Israel is responsible for all the horror  has to be outted for what it is and solid policy that does not perpetuate the grounds for the conflict but offers real solutions, substituted.

Presenting uncritiqued assertions from spokesmen for the Jordanian regime, as this article does, when that government has denied/ lied about the systematic atrocities committed by Hamas in Israel on Oct. 7, and certainly, has not condemned them, and with no mention of Jordan’s bias and interests in all this, is at best, sloppy journalism, advocacy masquerading as reporting. Jordan, of course, does not want a Gazan influx, not that that is on the agenda. But that is Jordan’s clear connection to “protecting” Egyptian Sinai from serving as a temporary refuge for Gazans– this, but not the urgent humanitarian needs of Gazans, evokes such pan-Arab solidarity. Israel’s population, of course, is 23% Palestinian, a fact, somehow, overlooked in conversations about all this. Here, too, omission serves bias.

Rather than the scare scenario this article assumes and propagates, it is entirely reasonable to propose that admitting Gazans to Egyptian Sinai under international auspices in order to get them out of harm’s way and provide tenable living conditions, is:

a) temporary and not to become permanent; and

b) will be funded internationally. No one is asking dysfunctional Egypt (or any other dysfunctional Arab state), to take this on.

Let the UN do something useful in this clear, and it would seem, obvious proposal. And if UNWRA continues to be an arm of Hamas, as it has long been known to be but the evidence now is overwhelming, including UNWRA employees holding Israeli hostages at gunpoint in their homes, never mind UNWRA schools awash in automatic weapons and ammunition, rockets, and grenades – that too, is rightly an international problem to fix.

A concerted international effort, a kind of Marshall Plan, with heavy participation of Arab regimes, in particular, those of the Gulf, and of Palestinians focused on the future, not undoing the past or the present, makes the article’s quoted pronouncements of an extremist Israeli think tank irrelevant. Even Netanyahu says, no reoccupation, no renewed Israeli settlements there. He is a known liar but there is zero political ballast behind reoccupying, resettling, or depopulating Gaza. To present that otherwise is either to be ignorant of Israeli political realities or to be in the service of deliberate distortion.

Let what is stated, above, be part of a broad-scope international resolution of Gaza, in which Israel has a part, but only a part.

Because anything else is globalizing the intifada, and the broader, “Nakba” narrative which underlies it.

Which is why we are in this mess to begin with.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College. She is the author of four published books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her new book is the first history of agunot and iggun from medieval times to the present, across the Jewish map. It also presents analysis and critique of current policy on Jewish marital capitivity and proposals to end this abuse. Entitled, "Thinking Outside the Chains About Jewish Marital Captivity," it is forthcoming from NYU Press. She is a founder of women's group prayer at the Kotel and first-named plaintiff on a case before the Supreme Court of Israel asking enforcement of Jewish women's already-recognized right to read Torah at the Kotel. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, Moment, the Times of Israel, and the Jerusalem Post.
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