A Palestinian state in Sinai?
Rumours of a future Palestinian state in Sinai should be firmly quashed by the Egyptian government, writes Ahmad Naguib Roushdy
Rumour has it, and some articles in Egyptian newspapers have stated, that the increasing crossings of Palestinians to the Egyptian Sinai through the illegal tunnels between Egypt and Gaza have been taking place in accordance with a plan by the Islamist-led government of Hamas in Gaza, which has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. The aim is to settle the Palestinians in Sinai, not as refugees but as a permanent homeland for them and to declare a Palestinian state there, substituting it for the West Bank.
The rumours say that this is part of a wild plan that Israel might welcome in order to get rid of the Palestinians from the West Bank once and for all and to annex it as part of its territory, thus making Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist organisation and the godfather of the state of Israel, happy in his grave. If all this is true, the Palestinians would be copying the Zionists in their previous attempts to establish a Jewish state in Sinai.
History tells us that Herzl, like all members of his organisation a non-religious Jew, made his call for the establishment of a "national home for the Jews" in Palestine his main platform. He declared this at his organisation's conference in Basle, Switzerland, on 24 August 1897. The hidden goal was to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. The first step towards this goal was to encourage Jewish immigration to Palestine that included Russian and Polish Jews such as Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister during the 6 October War, and Moshe Dayan, her former defence minister.
Zionist terrorist groups followed up this strategy by forcing Palestinian residents to sell their land to Jewish settlers or by expelling them by force, with many Palestinians fleeing out of fears of being killed.
However, as an alternative Herzl was also apparently dreaming of establishing a Jewish national home in the Egyptian Sinai. In 1902 he proposed his plans to the British politician Joseph Chamberlain, a member of the cabinet of the then British prime minister Arthur Balfour, famous for his later declaration regarding Jewish aspirations to have a national home in Palestine, commonly known as the Balfour Declaration. The alternative idea was to establish Jewish settlements in Arish and Rafah in Sinai. Chamberlain welcomed the idea, but he had to consult with Britain's foreign minister first, as Egypt had been occupied by Britain since 1882.
The British foreign minister consulted with Lord Cromer, British high commissioner in Egypt and its virtual ruler at the time, who vehemently opposed the idea. First, it would have agitated the Egyptians who were already resisting the British occupation of their land and might have caused their violent uprising. Second, Cromer sensed that Jewish settlement in Sinai with its proximity to Palestine could mean that any new state of Israel could be enlarged to combine Sinai and Palestine.
Sinai is a large desert and mountain area within Egyptian territory bordered by the Gulf of Suez, the gateway to the Suez Canal, and the Gulf of Aqaba. It is also the path to Cairo. Were it to fall into foreign hands, this would threaten the country's security and British interests in Egypt and Asia, Cromer thought, especially in India, at the time the so-called "jewel" in the British crown. In addition, and most importantly, Herzl's proposal would have placed an obstacle to British plans to remove Sinai from Egyptian territory because of its strategic location that could endanger Egypt's security. It was not clear at the time what would be the status of Sinai if Egypt lost its sovereignty over it while the British occupation of Egypt continued. Cromer seemed to have hoped that the British occupation of Egypt would continue forever.
Herzl's proposal was also rejected by the then Ottoman sultan. At that time, Egypt had been an Ottoman possession since the Ottoman sultan Selim I had invaded it in 1517. The sultan looked at the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in the Sinai and then in Palestine as an outright assault on Ottoman territory that would have put Jerusalem, the third holy site for Muslims, in Jewish hands.
The Russian czar at the time, Nicholas II, also strongly opposed the Zionist plan to give the Jews Palestine as a homeland. Russia was then a Christian Orthodox empire, and it was ruled by the Romanov Dynasty. The czar warned England and the Zionist organisation against implementing Herzl's proposal that would put Jerusalem, a holy city for the Christian Orthodox faith to which the czar belonged, into Jewish hands. If that happened, the czar would be ready to go to war to stop the Zionist plan, thus going on a new crusade, this time against the Jews and maybe also England, which later also occupied Palestine.
That is why the disappearance of these two powers, the Ottoman and the Russian, from the scene after their defeat in World War I, after which the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turks were forced out of Egypt and Palestine, was a golden opportunity for the Zionist movement to increase Jewish immigration to Palestine and to win a declaration by Balfour to express his government's sympathy for Jewish aspirations to establish a homeland there. It is notable that the declaration did not use the phrase "Jewish state", however.
Undoubtedly, the Zionist organisation exploited the Jewish people's religious attachment to Sinai. This goes back to their so-called "exodus" from Egypt, led by the prophet Moses, who settled them there and where God spoke to Moses. Sinai has the same religious importance for Muslims as for Christians and Jews. The holy valley in Sinai where God spoke to Moses is also near Saint Catherine's Monastery, which Egyptians regard with complete respect.
Egypt's strategic location and natural resources were important to the plan, which is why Israel, after it occupied Sinai in the 1967 War, planned to annex the whole of Sinai to its territory, but was forced to end its occupation in accordance with the peace treaty with Egypt concluded on 26 March 1979.
In order to execute its plan to annex Sinai, Israel built several settlements there where it relocated many Israelis, including some Jewish-Americans. Shortly after the occupation began, Israel also started to drill for oil in the Egyptian oil fields in the Gulf of Suez, transferring the oil to its mainland. This oil satisfied 55 per cent of Israel's energy needs if reports are to be believed, with the rest being sold on international markets. Israel also worked the Egyptian mines in Sinai and siphoned water off from its wells, all in violation of international rules that prohibit an occupant from exploiting an occupied state's wealth, except to cover the needs of its army of occupation. The occupant has a responsibility not to exhaust such resources and to provide the local civilian population with its needs.
An annex to the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel stipulated that the parties form a committee to settle their financial claims. At that time, it was reported that the value of the oil plundered by Israel from the Egyptian oil fields amounted to more than $20 billion according to the value of the dollar at the time and the price of oil on world markets.
I have myself written on this subject several times in the Arabic edition of Al-Ahram and in extended legal research published in English. I found that the said committee had not been formed, and to the best of my knowledge it still has not been. If this is the case, then the Morsi government has a duty to force Israel to form this committee and to pay Egypt the value of the oil and other materials it plundered from Sinai. Egypt could sue Israel before the International Court of Justice for this purpose.
Some Western political experts, such as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, profess that Sinai has lost its strategic importance. This is not true. Sinai did not stop being important for England after the end of its occupation of Egypt in the early 1950s. The continuing flow of oil through the Suez Canal and the dependence of most Western countries on Arab oil keep Egypt's strategic importance alive. The Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956 by England, France and Israel after the Egyptian government nationalised the Suez Canal Company is proof of that.
In addition, Sinai has been, and still is, essential to Egypt's security. The Ayoubid sultan Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi (Saladin), a brilliant Egyptian ruler and hero of the crusades, realised this fact and built a fortress there that bears his name in Taba, a city in Sinai on the Gulf of Aqaba that is considered the gateway to Sinai and the path to Suez. It is true that although modern military weapons like supersonic bombers, ballistic missiles, and most recently pilotless drones have shortened the distance between foreign countries and Egypt, but infantry is still necessary to occupy land. In all of Egypt's wars against Israel, attacking Egypt from the east through Sinai was a crucial step.
The late geographer Gamal Hamdan in his book on Sinai wrote that from the strategic point of view Sinai was not only a natural buffer to protect Egypt, but could also serve as an early warning site because of its geography. Sinai, Hamdan wrote, has been changed from a military bridge, to a military field, and from a military strategic buffer to a pathway for danger to arise. The reason for this danger is that Sinai is the pathway to the Suez Canal, which is why any attack on Sinai from the east threatens the Canal and consequently paralyses Egypt. This was proven in the 1956 and 1967 wars between Egypt and Israel. Thus, Egypt's strategic location is still crucial as the Sinai is part of the canal and an inseparable part of Egypt's security. It is an "Arab shield", added Hamdan.
From the economic point of view, Hamdan wrote that Sinai was rich in oil, gold, precious metals, coal, iron, phosphates, copper, magnesium and other materials. In addition to its beaches, there are areas where the coral reefs compete with the famous Great Barrier Reef in Australia, such as the reefs at Ras Mohamed, now a world-famous landmark.
The recent ominous talk of a Palestinian state in the Egyptian Sinai, which started after the 25 January Revolution, requires attention and firm action from President Morsi. I believe that the revolution did not only aspire to freedom and dignity, but also to the idea that Egypt is for all Egyptians. We are not leaves to be blown about in foreign winds. Gone are the days when the corrupt officials and remnants of the former Mubarak regime were able to plunder the country's wealth and sell its land for pennies.
Even if they are only rumours, these rumours have roots in Egypt's history. Every Egyptian sympathises with the Palestinian cause, and much Egyptian blood has been shed in defence of it. But if these rumours are true, the Palestinians have shown themselves to be ungrateful and could be considered to be Egypt's enemies. The Egyptian government should force any Palestinians now in Sinai to return to where they came from, since they cannot be considered refugees. The Morsi government's ties with Hamas should not compromise Egypt's security and sovereignty.
When President Morsi in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September called for the right of the Palestinians to establish an independent state, he meant in Palestine and not in Egypt. Any Egyptian who helps the Palestinians or others to plunder our land must be considered a traitor.
The writer is an international lawyer.