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For Israel to beat Hamas quickly, Arab neighbors should admit Gazans

5 months ago 35

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

TEL AVIV — How would the world have reacted if Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia had turned their backs on Ukrainian families seeking refuge from war over the past 18 months? It isn’t hard to imagine the likely outcry.

But when it comes to the Middle East, the refusal of Israel’s Arab neighbors to open their doors to Palestinians and offer them temporary sanctuary hasn’t produced a similar reaction.

Neither Egypt nor Jordan, which flank Israel and share borders with Gaza and the occupied West Bank, respectively, have offered refuge. Quite the opposite: Both have adamantly refused to accept Gazans. “No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II declared last month.

Moreover, both countries argue they have justifiable grounds for keeping their doors firmly bolted — hence the absence of Western outrage over their refusal to accept Gaza’s Palestinians. Jordan already has a large Palestinian population and, like Egypt, fears the potential security and political repercussions of admitting more.

Among their worries is that if they admitted Gazans, Hamas would gain a foothold in their countries. That, in turn, could create problems for Egypt and Jordan with Israel in future if the Palestinians remained long-term, given that Hamas could use the two countries to launch attacks on Israel and potentially wreck peace treaties signed 40 years ago.

A Hamas presence, King Abdullah and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi fear, also risks destabilizing Egypt and Jordan.

Abdullah was eight years old in 1970 when Jordan was plunged into a civil war as his father, King Hussein, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) battled for control of the country. After several failed assassination attempts on the Jordanian monarch, and the hijacking of three airplanes, Hussein attacked the PLO to preserve Hashemite rule. His son clearly has no wish once again to expose himself or his heirs to the risk of an interloper endangering the monarchy.

El-Sisi is as wary as Abdullah. Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups in the Sinai, where Gazan refugees would likely have to be accommodated. The Egyptian leader has in the past accused Hamas of aiding Sinai’s militants.

Nakba fears

Both leaders have also advertised their fear that temporary sanctuary could lead to a permanent mass displacement of Palestinians. Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that Israel’s war aims will shift.

In particular, they worry that under pressure from the country’s hard-right religious nationalists, PM Benjamin Netanyahu will end up permanently annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, thereby uprooting a large part of its population and echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (“catastrophe”), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. That would likely wreck Palestinian aspirations for statehood in Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel is itself partly to blame for the nakba suspicion. Some columnists for Israel Hayom — a newspaper owned by the family of late American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a close friend of Netanyahu’s — have advocated Gaza’s annexation. Gideon Sa’ar, a newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, has also said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war … Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”

A man opens his shop in the aftermath of an Israeli raid on the refugee camp of Balata, east of the occupied West Bank town of Nablus | Zain Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

And just last week, a prominent settler from Netanyahu’s Likud party told POLITICO that West Bank-style settlements should be reintroduced in the Palestinian coastal enclave as a defensive belt. Yossi Dagan, an influential figure on Israel’s right wing and who oversees several Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, argued it was time to turn the clock back to before 2005, when Israel exercised military rule over Gaza.

Of course, such talk only fuels Arab fears of another nakba, justifying their refusal to admit Palestinian refugees, and encourages Egypt, which signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, to break its international legal obligations. Egypt is one of only two Arab states that signed the convention, the other being Yemen.

A senior Israeli official told me Israel would be prepared to give a solemn undertaking to Egypt and any other Arab country to allow Palestinians back when the war is concluded. For Israel, he said, the imperative is to defeat Hamas, and that’s harder to do with civilians present. 

Speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, the official noted that in order to crush Hamas, Israel has little option but to wreck Gaza. That’s exactly how Hamas, which is indifferent to the mayhem, death and destruction it will bring down on Palestinians in Gaza, wants it, according to the official: The group knows that by placing its fighters among civilians, it forces Israel to harm ordinary Gazans to defeat the enemy. In a word, Hamas invites massive Israeli retaliation — indeed, that’s always been its core strategic aim.

Emotive subject

Arguably, Arab nations are only advancing the Hamas agenda and worsening the plight of Gaza’s civilians by declining to offer them refuge for the duration of the war, the official says. In short, Arab governments are compounding the invidious position in which Hamas has deliberately placed Israel by daring it to wreck Gaza to defend itself.  

Would a solemn undertaking help persuade Egypt and other Arab nations to shelter Palestinian civilians en masse? It seems a forlorn hope.

A woman walks past damaged shops in the aftermath of an Israeli raid on the refugee camp of Balata, east of the occupied West Bank town of Nablus | Zain Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images

Arab governments — all of whom except Qatar wish to see Hamas gone — would likely fear a backlash from their own people and from militant groups, from al Qaeda to Da’ish, who would accuse them of doing the bidding of the West and of the hated Zionists.

The Palestinian cause has remained an emotive subject in the “Arab street,” thanks in part to Arab leaders who have used it over the decades for their own geopolitical interests. As Arab nations have signed peace treaties and “normalized” relations with Israel, their leaders have been walking on eggshells, not wanting to draw attention to their actions.

Nonetheless, their interests would now be better served by being less delicate and helping to clear the Gaza battlefield of civilians.

They wish wholeheartedly for the Palestinian mess to disappear so they can focus on the future, on their economies, and on developing a corridor of prosperity stretching from the Gulf through Israel and Egypt to southern Europe, and linking up with Asia. They share that vision with Netanyahu — hence the Abraham Accords and the normalization negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which were upset by the October 7 attack that Hamas launched on southern Israel.

The war imperils that new vision of the Middle East, and Arab nations, especially those in the Gulf, want it to end as soon as possible so everyone can get back to business.

What better way to ensure that happens, then, than by helping Israel crush Hamas as speedily as possible by taking in Gazans — on an agreed temporary basis — so the battlefield is cleared of civilians? As much as it would serve the new Middle East, however, Arab leaders are unlikely to summon the courage to do it.

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