OpinionIsrael at War

‘Refugees Lives Matter,’ unless they’re Palestinian

Ignoring the obvious solution of Gazans taking refuge in Egypt sacrifices countless human lives to cynical geopolitics.

A tent camp in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, set up for Palestinians who evacuated from their homes, Jan. 30, 2024. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
A tent camp in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, set up for Palestinians who evacuated from their homes, Jan. 30, 2024. Photo by Atia Mohammed/Flash90.
Yonatan Green. Credit: Courtesy,
Yonatan Green
Yonatan Green is an Israeli-American attorney who is currently a fellow at the Georgetown University Center for the Constitution.

The recent news cycle has been awash with dire predictions of what awaits the Palestinian population of Gaza following a widely expected Israeli ground incursion into the southern city of Rafah. Germany warned of a humanitarian “catastrophe,” while a U.N. official notably said that the offensive could “lead to a slaughter.” Another theme is the abject helplessness of Rafah residents, many of whom have fled their homes elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. “Displaced Gazans Wonder Where to Go,” says a New York Times headline. Other headlines struck a similar tone: “Terrified people say there’s nowhere left to go” (Associated Press), “Civilians in Gaza ‘trapped'” (France 24), and “Where can we go?” (BBC).

Where indeed? If only Rafah was a stone’s throw (or a rocket’s lob, if you must) from an enormous Arab-Muslim-majority country, heavily dependent on Western aid that could be leveraged, with a degree of culpability in enabling the current crisis. Hang on, what about the one with the Pyramids?

The glaring absence of Egypt from discussions and reporting regarding Rafah is nothing short of astonishing. Whether out of genuine indifference, Orwellian hypocrisy or black-hearted malice, the prospect of neighboring Egypt accepting Gazan refugees to save lives and alleviate suffering is simply ignored, or is at best lightly sidestepped as an afterthought. A parallel situation anywhere else in the world would be inconceivable—imagine Poland closing its border to 6.3 million Ukrainian refugees. Yet in all the reporting surrounding the Rafah offensive Egypt gets a free pass.

The global pro-refugee movement has grown to enormous proportions over the past few decades. We’re constantly reminded of the vulnerability of refugees and the vital need for their immediate and unconditional protection. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel was celebrated around the Western world for having an “open door” policy for Syrian refugees and ultimately admitting 1.2 million refugees into Germany. She even won a U.N. award for it. We’re told daily by earnest human rights advocates about the suffering of those desperately crossing the Mediterranean to reach European shores. The U.K. Supreme Court struck down a government plan to deport refugees to Rwanda and the U.S. is facing an unprecedented border crisis fueled by a policy sympathetic to the plight of (alleged) refugee migrants.

Yet the silence from refugee protection organizations, agencies and activists—and indeed from many others—on Gazans taking refuge in Egypt is deafening. Not to mention the utter absence of enlightened European and other Western countries offering to host willing Gazan refugees. If the many declarations of impending doom in Rafah are sincere, surely this is the time to demand that a neighboring country take in a few poor souls. You know, the one with an ethno-religious makeup similar to that of Gaza, with massive swaths of empty territory and the only neighbor not currently at war with Hamas. Ringing any bells? With Egypt being so glaringly and pointedly ignored as sharing a border with Gaza, it’s easy to understand how President Joe Biden confused it with Mexico.

We’ve heard that Egypt is unenthusiastic about this idea. Maybe President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has yet to learn about the U.N. award. But it’s unclear why this should matter a single bit. Egypt is a signatory to the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has obligations under international law. If Palestinians manage to cross the border, Egypt must grant them refugee status. Unless of course, international law (or some imagined version of it) only applies when adverse to Israeli survival.

Egypt is also a massive recipient of Western (and especially American) aid, primarily of the tanks-and-guns variety, which keeps the controlling bosses in power. Surely appropriate pressure may be brought to bear on Sisi such that he’ll come around to appreciate the importance of sheltering refugees fleeing conflict.

Finally, Egypt has directly contributed to the current Hamas reign of terror in Gaza and the outbreak of the current war. It was Egypt’s deliberate complacency that allowed the wholesale Hamas smuggling operation to run freely under its nose and literally under its border.

To add insult to idiocy, some excuse Egypt’s refusal on the basis that allowing innocent civilians to escape a war zone will somehow benefit Israel. The AP explains that “Egypt has staunchly refused any mass exodus of Palestinians onto its soil, fearing Israel will not allow them to return.”

Granted, conflict-driven population movements have a habit of becoming permanent and many firm international borders were thus drawn. Egypt might even have some reason to resist the idea of a million Gazans moving in.

But the entirety of international refugee law is founded upon the notion that protecting the lives of those fleeing violence trumps such concerns. When Merkel gave an open invitation to Syrian refugees, few in the international community seemed concerned about whether this was expedient for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. And nothing in the framework of refugee rights says that countries can flout their obligations because they think the refugees might stay.

The appalling message all this conveys is that the prospect of Israel making any geopolitical gains is so distasteful to some that they’d rather see the entire edifice of the refugee protection paradigm go out the window, with dead Palestinians as collateral damage. The U.N. Refugee Agency writes on its website that “anyone fleeing persecution, conflict, or human rights abuses has a right to seek protection in another country.” They seem to be missing the asterisk about this rule not applying when it’s Palestinians who are fleeing.

Some contend that Palestinians in Rafah or elsewhere in Gaza won’t go to Egypt. One might even receive the impression that certain news outlets are keen to echo, amplify and encourage such sentiments. Very well. But let’s give Palestinians the actual choice and see who sticks around. If Palestinian lives matter at all to the international community this is the least they can do, rather than sacrifice those lives in the interest of regional geopolitics.

Biden reportedly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that an offensive in Rafah should only proceed after “ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there.” Perhaps it’s time to consider the obvious solution of sheltering them elsewhere, just next door?

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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