How Plans to Move Palestinians to Egypt Backfired

The story of a forgotten attempt to resettle Palestinians in the Sinai Peninsula after the 1948 Nakba

How Plans to Move Palestinians to Egypt Backfired
A woman teaches young Palestinian refugees in a makeshift classroom in Zarqa, Jordan, in 1949. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

This May marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli state. In popular narratives, both in Israel and the United States, the events of 1948 often assume biblical proportions. As dramatized by Leon Uris’ 1958 novel “Exodus,” an international bestseller that reached even wider audiences when adapted for film, the mass migration of Europe’s Jews to historic Palestine is seen as a second escape from Egypt. This isn’t the only explicit reference to the Book of Exodus. Even Israel’s Declaration of Independence used this metaphor to characterize the founding of the state, as the end of Jewish exile and the return to a biblical homeland, “the realization of the age-old dream.” But what has been forgotten is the counterpoint to the Jewish return from Egyptian exile: the planned expulsion of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai Desert.

In the early 1950s, a United Nations scheme to resettle tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza to Sinai aimed to eliminate the Palestinian right of return. Ultimately, however, the plan would trigger one of the first instances of Palestinian mass mobilization and organized resistance after 1948. The 1955 uprising in Gaza — what would become known as the March Intifada — forced U.N. officials to abandon refugee resettlement projects and recognize Palestinian claims to a political identity of their own.

In December 1949, after Zionist militias had driven three-quarters of a million Palestinians out of their homes and into the West Bank, Gaza and neighboring Arab states, the U.N. General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The agency was tasked with providing humanitarian relief and social services to Palestinian refugees in camps across the diaspora until a political solution was found that would allow Palestinians to return to their homes or receive compensation. During its first two years, UNRWA also launched a works program to employ refugees and reintegrate them into local economies outside of the camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Once self-sufficient, the agency believed, refugees would choose to leave the camps and no longer rely on UNRWA relief. But only a small percentage of Palestinians participated in these small-scale infrastructure projects — which included irrigation works, afforestation schemes and highway and dam construction — and they were ultimately more expensive for UNRWA to maintain than basic relief provision.

By the summer of 1951, the agency had changed course. Under its second director, John B. Blandford, UNRWA moved to resettle hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Arab states to support large-scale agricultural development — what Blandford called UNRWA’s “new programme” of economic reintegration. Through these projects, UNRWA aimed not only to remove refugees from the agency’s relief rolls but also to launch a wider Arab economic renaissance in line with U.S. strategic interests. The General Assembly supported this effort with a $200 million “Reintegration Fund,” primarily sustained by U.S. contributions. Blandford, a New Yorker with a background in public administration, had held high-level positions in multiple state and federal agencies prior to his arrival at UNRWA. This included the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the preeminent American model for regional economic development.

The TVA was one of numerous New Deal-era federal programs that saw the rehabilitation of rural economies through land reclamation, development and community resettlement as the path to social rehabilitation in the wake of the Great Depression. In the postwar period, TVA-style development would inform a wider consensus on U.S. international aid, and it helps to explain UNRWA’s shift toward the new program. In an era of great technological optimism, American policymakers believed that large-scale planning would spur economic growth, modernize “underdeveloped” populations and stem the appeal of communism in new postcolonial states.

Importantly, UNRWA’s new program was designed to eliminate the Palestinian refugee question as a political problem by treating it as a mere technical obstacle. This was in line with Blandford’s ideological belief in economic development and industrial engineering as a solution to political disputes. As revealed in his personal papers, which have recently become available to the public, Blandford insisted that the systematic expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland was simply an “economic dislocation” that could be solved through a program of reintegration in neighboring countries. In his view, this would offer a shortcut to solve the thorny refugee issue by separating it from the broader diplomatic effort to achieve an Arab-Israeli settlement — which had consistently foundered over the question of refugee repatriation.

Such an approach could not accommodate the desires of Palestinian refugees themselves — neither their personal determination to return to their homes and lands, nor their broader political aspirations to decide their own future. For Blandford and his fellow technocrats, Palestinians were not to be directly consulted in their own development but rather brought into the modern world, as he would have seen it, through industrial interventions. Blandford never believed that Palestinians would be allowed to return to their homes. If Palestinians themselves thought otherwise, he insisted that it was UNRWA’s responsibility to convince them that participating in economic development projects was in their best interests. According to this logic, Palestinian refugees’ desire to return to their homes could only be understood as a kind of pathological disorder, rather than a legitimate political claim. If a refugee refused to participate or even protested against UNRWA’s works projects, Blandford argued in UNRWA’s June 1951 report, it was evidence that they were “irritable and unstable,” a product of “the typical refugee mentality.”

UNRWA’s new program would affect Palestinian refugees across the Arab world, but perhaps nowhere more so than in Gaza. This was because, from the outset, the Gaza Strip constituted UNRWA’s greatest challenge. By March 1949, more than 200,000 refugees — nearly three times the size of the local population — had arrived in the 140-square-mile territory, which had come under Egyptian occupation the previous month. UNRWA erected eight refugee camps in the strip, but it found no opportunities for any considerable works project program. As a result, the agency’s leaders quickly moved to find ways to resettle large numbers of refugees outside of Gaza.

Starting in July 1950, UNRWA worked closely with the Egyptian government to explore agricultural development and resettlement schemes in the Sinai Desert. Initially, extensive surveys of project areas in Sinai had failed to find viable sources of groundwater to support large-scale agriculture. But after the July 1952 coup in Egypt, which brought the nationalist Free Officers to power, plans for Sinai development took a new turn.

The new Egyptian government had independently begun to examine the idea of reclaiming an agricultural zone in Sinai, which would support 60,000 Palestinian refugees resettled from Gaza. To do so, freshwater from the Nile would be conveyed eastward from Cairo through subsidiary canals, siphoned under the Suez Canal, and pumped to an elevated area of nearly 52,000 acres. Blandford and UNRWA officials were excited by this new initiative and, in June 1953, UNRWA had agreed to reserve $30 million of the Reintegration Fund for the siphon scheme. Survey plans were quickly assembled and, at the end of the year, Egyptian, American and Australian land reclamation experts ventured into the desert.

In the context of the new government’s wider commitment to agricultural development, Egypt’s interest in resettling Palestinian refugees in Sinai makes sense. The Egyptian Free Officers were much more concerned with immediate issues of governance — expelling the British from Egypt and fighting against widespread poverty and disease — than championing Palestinian rights. The promise of land reclamation to transform idle deserts and swamps into arable land, resettle populations from overcrowded areas and increase national agricultural output was attractive. Extensive citrus fruit cultivation, for example, was one of the main goals of the Sinai project: The government aimed to increase fruit consumption across Egypt and export these cash crops to the Persian Gulf and Europe. The prospect of mineral resource development in Sinai was also a key motivating factor for the regime. In this revolutionary moment, UNRWA’s Sinai development scheme was just one of multiple ambitious projects, funded with foreign aid, that the Egyptian government believed would benefit its own national economy. Alongside the Sinai project, the U.S. government allocated tens of millions of dollars to support Egyptian development projects in the early 1950s, and plans for land reclamation led by the Egyptian American Rural Improvement Service (EARIS) were some of the most successful.

Just as important as economic interests were Egypt’s regional policies. In its efforts to avoid military confrontation with Israel, Egypt tried to maintain tight control over Palestinian movement in Gaza. But with ongoing Israeli military raids into Gaza refugee camps throughout the early 1950s and Palestinian “infiltration” across the armistice lines, refugee resettlement became an even more appealing solution to Egypt. They could not admit as much in public but, in private conversations between Egyptian and American officials, members of the new government were not particularly insistent on Palestinian repatriation even in the long term. In Cairo’s quest to develop land, industrialize its economy, expel the British from the Suez Canal zone and maintain its primacy in the Arab world, Palestinian political rights were simply not a priority.

In July 1955, the Sinai survey team submitted its final report, which concluded that the proposed siphon scheme was technically sound. The report is also significant because it revealed the entire project to be an experiment in social engineering. If the proper soil and water resources were critical to the project’s success, so too were Palestinian refugees themselves, or what the report referred to as “human resources.” No longer confined to a pre-modern agricultural existence in Palestine, the report argued, refugees would be brought into the modern world in Sinai and transformed into self-reliant farmers. This would also accomplish a key aim of population management: With an extensive health education program to promote family planning, the project aimed to lower refugees’ high birth rate. Over half of the Gaza refugee population was under the age of 15.

The survey team recognized that refugee participation was not guaranteed — and so the project would also involve a program of psychological conditioning. The report advised UNRWA administrators to launch a widespread propaganda campaign in the Gaza camps to inspire refugees to cooperate, and even recommended that UNRWA construct a model Sinai farm in Gaza. But the project could not succeed through incentives alone. If this $30 million investment were to meet its goals, its “human resources” would need to be closely surveilled, regulated and policed. The report detailed the phased relocation of selected refugees from Gaza to Sinai via railway, which would be carefully controlled to prevent any unnecessary delays. Its authors advised that once refugees were resettled in the project villages, their movement should be monitored, and the newly established local civil administration should appoint police posts and village guards to prevent sabotage of the irrigation system. In the fields, vigilant supervision of farming techniques would be required to obtain optimal agricultural yields. By outlining these measures, the survey report intended to reaffirm Egypt’s ultimate jurisdiction over the project: While refugees would become self-reliant, they would still remain subject to Egyptian laws and regulations, and their right to participate in the project was thus conditional on submitting to Egyptian sovereignty.

Reading the survey report today, it is striking how little its highly technical approach to the Palestinian refugee question allowed for any degree of human subjectivity. It exemplified the idea of refugees, as articulated by Blandford and other U.N. officials, as merely unfortunate victims of an “economic dislocation” that would be made whole through financial restitution alone. This was a highly dehumanizing approach: In a conversation with UNRWA’s director, one Palestinian argued that resettlement projects treated refugees like chickens, who could be moved from one hencoop to another. But perhaps more importantly, within the logic of the survey report, Palestinian refugees could not be understood as political actors. In fact, the report showed that the Sinai project would entail the erasure of Palestinian political identity. In its view, social life in pre-1948 Palestine was organized around the “natural social units” of the family, the clan and the village, and due to the isolation of rural communities, these units were the only basis for social loyalties. In other words, Palestinian “peasants” could claim no national or political identity. Accordingly, the survey report advised UNRWA to use clan- and village-based social ties in the design of Sinai farming communities.

Ironically, Palestinians’ collective response to the Sinai project was a testament to the strength of their political consciousness, even after their violent dispersal in 1948. Palestinians across the diaspora recognized the threat the plan posed to their right of return. In Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, Palestinian journalists and political organizers wrote about the Sinai project and discussed its implications. They saw the historical irony of their predicament — the result of Jewish return to Palestine and the end of their biblical exile from Egypt would be aided by the Palestinians’ expulsion into Egypt. As the Palestinian journalist Hamdi al-Husseini argued, writing from Gaza for the Egyptian newspaper Al-Muqattam, the project would condemn Palestinians to wander lost in the desolate wilderness of Sinai, like Moses and his followers.

Palestinians also objected specifically to Sinai as a destination for refugee resettlement. Pointing to the frequency of sandstorms, unbearably hot summer temperatures, arid lands that would take years to yield agricultural products, and desert diseases, they argued that the project would annihilate not just their political cause but also their physical bodies. More broadly, Palestinian writers understood that the Sinai project and other resettlement schemes directly threatened Palestinian political rights. They refused to accept that economic rehabilitation could substitute for the right of return. Throughout the early 1950s, Palestinians saw a clear link between UNRWA’s resettlement plans and the increasingly frequent Israeli military raids in Gaza — a deliberate political strategy to pressure Egypt to move Palestinians out of Gaza and away from the armistice lines. Facing these twin dangers, many Palestinians called for widespread, coordinated resistance as the only effective response.

Palestinians in Gaza began to organize and demonstrate against the Sinai project in 1953, but the turning point came in February 1955. On the night of Feb. 28, after a Palestinian guerrilla group from Gaza killed a civilian in the Tel Aviv suburbs, the Israeli military raided an Egyptian military barracks near Gaza City, killing 36 Egyptian soldiers and two Palestinian civilians. The next day, Gaza witnessed the largest popular uprising of the period of Egyptian rule. Protesters targeted the offices of the U.N. and Egyptian government, whom they charged as complicit in their failure to protect Palestinians against Israeli aggression.

The two primary demands of the March Intifada, as it would come to be known, were that the Sinai project be canceled and that Palestinian refugees in Gaza be armed and conscripted to defend against Israeli military aggression. As the Palestinian poet and political organizer Muin Bseiso recalls in his memoir, “Descent into the Water: Palestinian Notes from Arab Exile,” Palestinian communists and Muslim Brotherhood activists led a joint demonstration through the streets of Gaza City, chanting, “No settlement! No relocation!” and “They wrote the Sinai project in ink, and we shall erase it with blood!” When Egyptian forces opened fire on the crowd and killed a demonstrator, the protest leaders retreated to the UNRWA teachers’ union building. After a daylong standoff and a failed attempt to impose a curfew, the Egyptian military governor met with the leadership committee and agreed to their demands.

In the immediate aftermath of the uprising, it may have appeared to Palestinians in Gaza that the Egyptian government had deceived them and would renege on their agreement. Egyptian secret police infiltrated refugee camps and, on March 9, they raided the homes of communist and Islamist leaders. This was in line with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s wider repression of Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian communist activity. But despite imprisoning its leaders, Nasser largely embraced the demands of the March Intifada. He authorized the head of Egyptian intelligence in Gaza to begin recruiting and training Palestinians for military missions into Israel. And in August 1955, just one month after the survey report was completed, the Egyptian government paused the Sinai project. Its public justification was a purely technical one: Because Egypt had been unable to conserve water for its own uses, the government was unable to divert water to Sinai. However, Nasser’s private statements suggested otherwise. According to the papers of Henry Labouisse, UNRWA’s director from 1954 until 1958, Nasser admitted he believed that Palestinian refugees had become a “powerful force and would decide their own future,” and any overall political settlement would be impossible without addressing their demands.

This shift was also tied to regional and global politics: February 1955 marked the signing of the Baghdad Pact, a military alliance between Turkey and Hashemite Iraq, later joined by the United Kingdom, Iran and Pakistan. Nasser opposed the pact not only because it offered an alternative vision to Egypt as the center of Arab political and military power, but also because he believed that a Cold War military alliance, with Egypt’s former colonial power at the helm, was incompatible with regional Arab interests. In this context, the Feb. 28 raid helped push Nasser to adopt a new foreign policy, opposed to Arab-Israeli reconciliation and any strong manifestation of Western influence in the Middle East.

By the end of 1955, sustained Palestinian resistance to resettlement had forced UNRWA to abandon the new program to focus on smaller vocational training initiatives, as well as its health, education and ongoing relief efforts. Under Labouisse, the agency changed course after accepting that only a political resolution could address the plight of Palestinian refugees; it was not an economic problem susceptible to economic solutions. In his personal correspondences and private speeches, Labouisse admitted that it was a mistake to believe that the refugees would forget their past and be absorbed into the Arab world. Such a belief overlooked a fundamental fact: “it was the Palestinian nation that had been uprooted,” Labouisse wrote, “the refugees are not Syrians, Lebanese, or Egyptians or anything else but Palestinians.” This was an important ideological shift for UNRWA. Through the strength and consistency of their opposition, refugees had convinced the agency’s leaders to recognize them as Palestinians.

While often overlooked, the March Intifada was a critical juncture in the history of Palestinian politics. Through coordinated protests, Palestinians in Gaza reasserted their existence as political actors — no longer willing to be seen as passive, idle refugees in need of resettlement and economic rehabilitation. This insistence on a right to politics was a direct refusal of Blandford’s new program and its underlying logic: Resistance to resettlement was not evidence of a pathological disorder but the expression of a free and democratic political will. There could be no shortcuts to a political solution, demonstrators insisted, and, if necessary, Palestinians would return to their homes by force.

Despite the thousands of pages of survey reports and millions of dollars of allocated U.N. funding, by the end of the 1950s the Sinai project was just one of multiple resettlement projects that had been entirely abandoned. It, too, has been largely forgotten, perhaps because the plans never came to fruition. Yet, in our current moment, this history remains more important than ever. The project was emblematic of a certain type of thinking that pervaded U.S. and U.N. aid programs in the early postwar era, which prioritized economic development as a way to bypass political negotiations and eliminate the refugee dimension of the Palestinian question. It is clear that this approach to policymaking in the Middle East is still with us. From the Trump-era Peace to Prosperity plan, to growing economic normalization between Israeli and Arab regimes and between Israeli and Palestinian business elites, many still believe that capital investment will pave the way for a future political solution to Palestinian displacement. In this context, UNRWA’s program might serve as a cautionary tale. As the agency’s own economic adviser argued in 1954, a diplomatic settlement was a necessary and prior condition “for the acceptance of schemes of economic improvement.” On the Palestinian refugee question, in other words, there can be no exodus from the realm of politics.

This article emerged from a collaboration between New Lines magazine and the Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University (NYU). New Lines served as the Kevorkian Center’s Practitioner-in-Residence for the Spring 2023 semester.

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