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Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to convince European leaders to put pressure on Egypt into accepting refugees from Gaza, according to people briefed on the discussions.
The idea, which he put forward in meetings with European officials last week, was floated by countries including the Czech Republic and Austria in private discussions that led up to a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday, those people told the Financial Times.
However, key European countries, notably France, Germany and the UK, have dismissed the proposal as unrealistic, pointing to Egyptian officials’ consistent resistance to the idea of accepting refugees from Gaza, even on a temporary basis. Cairo has vociferously expressed its concerns that Israel would seek to use the crisis to force its problems with the Palestinians on to Egypt.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said this month that his country rejected “any attempt to liquidate the Palestinian issue by military means or through the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land, which would come at the expense of the countries of the region”.
Egypt’s potential role was discussed in the EU summit, people briefed on the leaders’ discussions told the FT. But leaders ultimately agreed that Egypt should play a role in providing broad humanitarian assistance to Gaza, but not be pressured to accept refugees.
“Netanyahu pushed quite hard that the solution was for Egyptians to take Gazans at least during the conflict,” said a western diplomat. “But we didn’t take it very seriously because the Egyptian position is and has always been very clear and they just won’t do it.”
A second western diplomat said they believed the pressure of a continued Israeli assault on Gaza could yet lead to a shift in stance. “That’s the only thing that can be done . . . so now the time is to put increased pressure on the Egyptians to agree,” they said.
More than 1mn Gazans have been displaced inside the territory since Israel began bombarding the coastal enclave three weeks ago in response to a devastating assault by Hamas militants on October 7, which killed more than 1,400 people, according to Israeli officials, in the deadliest ever attack on Israeli soil.
Israeli counterstrikes on Gaza have killed more than 8,000 people, according to Palestinian officials, and aid groups have warned that humanitarian conditions in the strip, where Israel has also severely restricted supplies of electricity, water, fuel and food, are catastrophic.
A joint declaration agreed by EU leaders released after last week’s summit called for “continued, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and aid to reach those in need through all necessary measures including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs”.
“The European Union will work closely with partners in the region to protect civilians, provide assistance and facilitate access to food, water, medical care, fuel and shelter, ensuring that such assistance is not abused by terrorist organisations,” EU leaders said in the declaration.
Two other people familiar with the situation said that, separately, talks were also ongoing about bringing injured people from Gaza to Egypt, but that there was no certainty that a deal would be reached. The Rafah crossing into Egypt’s Sinai region is the only entry and exit point from Gaza not controlled by Israel and currently the only route for aid to enter the territory.
“The Turks [have] offered to establish a field hospital if necessary. We’re not planning to move field hospitals to [north Sinai] but offering to provide technical support to strengthen a referral pathway from Gaza to Egypt,” one of the people said. “[The Egyptians] established a triage facility at Rafah, and we’re still in discussions about that.”
Egypt has taken in injured Palestinians for treatment during previous conflicts in Gaza and the authorities have been ensuring that hospitals in north Sinai have the necessary resources if wounded Gazans are allowed in.
The US state department said Washington supported safe passage for civilians wishing to leave Gaza, but did not support “any forced relocation of Palestinians outside of the Gaza Strip”.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo