Can Gaza's humanitarian corridors provide a route out for civilians?

The Israeli-Gaza war has revived the question of Palestinian displacement, as many call for an evacuation of the territory

Buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City. AFP
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Pressure on Israel for humanitarian corridors to puncture the siege of Gaza has been accompanied by parallel calls for people to be given the option of fleeing a potential ground invasion targeting Hamas.

The Palestinian territory had its electricity supply cut off on Monday and access to humanitarian aid convoys was made impossible by air strikes at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

As Egypt was negotiating with Israel over safe corridors through which to send aid, questions loomed over the implications for Gaza's two million residents who may seek to flee the onslaught.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pleaded for "immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access" for civilians in Gaza, as "there is no time to lose". But stopped short at calling for an evacuation of civilians, in a press briefing in New York on Wednesday.

Israel’s pounding of the territory has killed 900 Palestinians, many of them civilians, according to the latest figures from the Gaza Health Ministry.

At least 200,000 Palestinians have been internally displaced, according to the UN.

More than 2,300 Palestinians were killed in Israel's last ground invasion of Gaza in 2014. The risk of this happening again has prompted calls for the “evacuation” of Gazans. Some voices point out civilians have fled the Syrian and Ukraine wars in recent years as a reaction to the outbreak of fighting.

"Why has the UN Secretary General not called for two million civilians to be evacuated from a war zone? If these civilians are not evacuated things will soon become catastrophic," said Chris Gunness, a former spokesman for the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

Gaza is unique in the annals of contemporary warfare in that it’s the only conflict zone that is surrounded by a fence, so that people cannot flee,” he told The National.

A “humanitarian convoy of evacuations” is the “utmost priority” and should be negotiated with involvement from the UN or the regional group of actors, he said.

Temporary displacement to neighbouring Egypt is the "obvious" choice, as it is unlikely that Israel will allow anybody out of Gaza.

A return would then be agreed between the two parties after a ceasefire.

"Traditionally there would be a period of calm, a ceasefire, and an agreement for people to return," said Mr Gunness.

It is understood that the UK is working with Egyptian authorities to enable British and dual nationals to leave Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

“We have been speaking with Egypt about maintaining the land crossing from Gaza into Egypt," Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told media on Tuesday.

This follows pleas from Scotland's First Minister Humza Yousaf to the foreign secretary to push for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians trapped in Gaza, which include his wife's family.

The US is trying to negotiate safe passage of US citizens in Gaza, according to CNN.

But many fear an evacuation would lead to a permanent depopulation of Gaza, a move that would be opposed by many, not least by Gazans themselves and Palestinian leaders.

“Some Israeli extremist politicians have openly called for the “transfer” of Palestinians out of the Palestinian territories so as to perpetuate Israeli control – so Palestinian fears are understandable,” said Prof Rex Brynen, a political scientist at McGill University in Canada.

Gazans fear another round of permanent displacement, which has cornered them there in the first place.

“Gaza largely consists of people whose families fled past Israeli military operations, only to see their properties seized, their villages deliberately destroyed, and who were barred from returning on pain of being shot dead as “infiltrators”, he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Indeed the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of 1948, is core to Palestinian identity and existential fears,” he said.

An outflow of refugees into Egypt would threaten existing Arab-Israeli peace agreements, including 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

These gave autonomy for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and ensured that Egypt would not see refugee settlements on its territory in the Sinai desert.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi appeared to allude to this when he spoke to the media in Cairo on Tuesday, following the Israeli military's comments. "Egypt will not allow the liquidation of the Palestinian question at the expense of other parties,” he said.

Forcing Gazans to flee there would could see an unravelling of the 45-year agreement. “Netanyahu’s stated is aim is for Palestinians to cross into Egypt, and that’s a very big red line for the Egyptians," Ghanem Nuseibeh, a London-based security expert told The National.

“For the first time there has been a divergence between Egypt’s national security interests and Israel’s intentions. The security cooperation between Egypt and Israel will come under serious threat, and Jordan will follow suit" he said.

Updated: October 12, 2023, 8:24 AM