THE EGYPTIAN POLICY TOWARDS PALESTINE FROM 1949 TO 1956

By Axel Martin and Nour Cherif, Science Po


The All-Palestine Government (APG), whose history begins a few months before the beginning of our topic, was established in Gaza in September 1948, was short-lived, but it constituted one of the most interesting and instructive political experiments in the history of the Palestinian national movement, according to Avi Shlaim. Egypt was behind this project, especially Hajj Amine al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. As the leader of the Arab League, Egypt has always been active in the management of the Palestinian question. Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, the Secretary-General of the Arab League from 1945 to 1952, is indeed Egyptian. The APG was bankrupted at the end of 1948, with the resumption of the Arab-Israeli war and the hostilities with Amman, which saw the APG as a weapon of influence for Egypt. Inter-Arab League tensions finally led to the collapse of the APG. This fascinating example reveals the Egyptian dominance in the management of Palestinian affairs. This is especially true in the period from 1949 to 1956. In 1949, an Armistice was signed on February 24 under the aegis of the UN: The administration of Gaza was to be ensured by Egypt. At that time, Gaza was the home to 80,000 inhabitants, but 200,000 refugees were settled by the UN in 8 so-called ‘temporary camps’. In 1956, the Gaza Strip came under Israeli control for a few months, after the adoption of the Kadesh Plan on October 8, 1956, which aimed to humiliate Nasser and which also opened the Suez War. The Egyptian administration of the Gaza Strip was put on hold. Egypt itself has faced various political events between these two dates, including the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 where the Free Officers (Nasser and Naguib) overthrew King Farouk on July 23. To study the Egyptian policies towards Palestine from 1949 to 1956, we will first study the period from 1949 to the 1952 Revolution. Palestine was the land of influence for Egypt, which was mostly concerned with the management of Palestinian refugees (I). From 1952 to 1956, the Nasserist Egypt spearheaded anti-Zionism. (II).


I – From 1949 to 1952, Palestine as a land of influence for Egypt concerned with the management of Palestinian refugees

The Palestinian refugee issue is an external policy of the Egyptian administration. Egypt administers Palestine from the inside, through Gaza. Administratively speaking, it uses the same system as under the British mandate, with a military governor sent from Cairo. Although the UN provides up to 20% of Gaza’s GNP, it is Egypt that manages the public infrastructure. Egypt manages the Palestinian issue as a foreign matter and adopts an external policy towards it. Egypt does not want any refugees on its territory and moves the few thousand on its territory to Gaza. Similarly, it refuses to grant work permits to Palestinian refugees. However, it provides important humanitarian aid. At the same time, UNRWA became the main provider of social services, although the local civil service, under Egyptian supervision, tried to absorb some of the qualified refugees. In parallel with this domestic administration, Egypt was the voice of Palestine at the international negotiating table. First, Egypt attended the Lausanne Conference on April 27, 1949, along with several Arab states, to try to implement the right of return for refugees. However, Egyptian opposition to the proposal to annex Gaza to include the Palestinian population led to the failure of the conference. The following year, Egypt proposed to the UN a plan for the return of half of the Palestinian refugees to the territory allocated to the Arab state in the 1947 partition plan. Israel refused and the proposal was buried under the UN files.

Egypt can be also seen as the rear base of the Muslim Brotherhood weaving networks in Gaza. The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army is very tense. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood does not respect the order of battle nor the ceasefires. On 8 December 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt and Gaza, and the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated. The Brotherhood, therefore, acted clandestinely. The Muslim Brotherhood gradually re-established a legal identity in Gaza by developing networks in the refugee camps. For example, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood is done through the ‘association of unicity’. Likewise, the Brotherhood has a dozen sections in the Gaza Strip. Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood’s rear base, as many Muslim Brotherhood militants (such as Salah Khalaf or Fathi Balawi, or even… Yasser Arafat) studied in Egypt. Similarly, the Palestinian Students’ Union was founded in 1951 in Egypt, and Arafat became its Secretary-General in 1952. The Muslim Brotherhood was accused of being linked to the infiltration of Gaza into Israel, which strongly repressed this infiltration, particularly through the raid on the suburbs of Gaza in 1951. In the process, the Egyptian army did all it could to prevent these infiltrations.


II – From 1952 to 1956, Nasserist Egypt as a spearhead of anti-Zionism

There was an emergence on the Egyptian national scene of two personalities who were to become unavoidable. Nasser, assigned to the Gaza headquarters in 1948, and Neguib, governor of the territory between 1950 and 1951. Their seizure of power in July 1952 in Cairo allowed the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported them, to come out of the clandestinity to which they were condemned. For example, they were offered the municipality of Gaza in 1952 with Sheikh Sawan, and in return for this support, they showed loyalty to the Free Officers and suspended the infiltration of their commandos into Israel, despite the resistance of a core of Palestinian activists. They directly impacted the Gazan territory with the delivery of humanitarian aid by Egyptian “mercy trains” which were then distributed by the organization’s militants. With their thousand members in 1954, making them the most important party, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood administers Gaza, making it a territory of influence of its ideology. However, this administration of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gaza reveals a certain indifference of Egypt to the fate of Palestinian refugees, which feeds a tension in 1953. For example, UNRWA and Egypt signed an agreement to rehouse more than 50,000 Palestinians in the Sinai irrigation areas. With the rise of Nasser in Egypt, whereas Naguib was the favorite of the Muslim Brotherhood, the latter gradually lost its position as a privileged collaborator, and thus its legitimacy in Gaza: strong tensions arose because the Egyptian authority accused them of having taken over the raids “with the intention of provocation”. The arrest of the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as an assassination attempt on Nasser that led to a repression of unprecedented magnitude, constituted the series of events that made them fall into open opposition and marginalized their administration of the Palestinian territories, causing Sheikh Sawan to lose the mayor’s office in Gaza.

It was then that Egyptian policy on the Palestinian territories returned to the hands of Nasser. However, he was particularly contested by the Palestinians, who accused him through demonstrations and riots in 1955 of being “a dictator” who wanted to get rid of the Palestinian question. Indeed, a proposal to transfer Egyptian authority over the Gaza Strip to Jordan was made public but abandoned because it was refused by Israel. This, however, eased tensions as it showed that Egypt had no territorial claim on Gaza. Nasser visited the territory and was rather well-received, which allowed him on 11 May 1955 to formalize the status of Gaza by promulgating the “fundamental law of the region under the control of the Egyptian forces in Palestine. We are thus witnessing a form of legal formalization of Egyptian policy in Palestine, legally creating the “Gaza Strip.” However, a resurgence of tensions with Israel led to the organization of two “fedayeen” campaigns by Nasser, on 22 August 1955 and 7 April 1956, which consisted of Palestinian commandos infiltrating from Gaza to kill Israelis, until the direct intervention of the UN Secretary-General to avoid an escalation. This action of the Egyptian leader, as well as the nationalization of the Suez Canal, allowed him to acquire considerable popularity in the Arab world and particularly in Gaza, where even the communists supported him. This was to be the source of the transformation of Gaza into the “matrix of the fedayeen”: the collaboration between communists and Islamists led to the politicization of militants and then their professionalization, with the infiltrations being supervised and manipulated by Nasser’s Egypt. But this ‘Nasserian’ administration of Gaza was to lead to a strong Israeli response: the Kadesh plan, adopted on 8 October 1956, which aimed to reconquer the Sinai in three stages, before taking control of the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian administration in 1956 thus finally constituted a policy accepted internally, but its very essence became threatened by its most direct enemy, Israel.

Being above all a land of influence for the Egyptian monarchy, which was losing legitimacy, the management of the refugee question allowed Egypt to become the spokesperson for Palestine at the international negotiating table. At the same time, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Egyptian national scene makes the Islamist movement a major actor in the politics of Gaza, sometimes with the support of the Egyptian authorities and sometimes with their hostility. Their aim is mainly self-interested, through the creation of clandestine networks of aid to the population to satisfy their legitimacy. It was Nasser’s arrival on the Arab scene that reconfigured the Egyptian administration of Gaza, formalizing its territorial status and engaging in the hostile struggle against Israel. This impact of the Egyptian state policy on the Palestinian territories kept going after 1956, with the creation, in 1964, of the Palestine Liberation Organization.


References

– Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Histoire de Gaza. 2015. Pluriel.

– Filiu, Jean-Pierre. 2012. Les fondements historiques du Hamas à Gaza (1946-1987). Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 115, 3-14. https://doi.org/10.3917/vin.115.0003

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