Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1372, (7 - 13 December 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mubarak, Thatcher and Sinai

BBC reports that former president Mubarak agreed to give up land in Sinai for the creation of a Palestinian state are false, writes Mohamed Salmawy

اقرأ باللغة العربية

What strange timing for a news report claiming that, in 1983, Egypt had agreed to give up a portion of the Sinai so that a Palestinian state could be established there instead of on the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel. The report comes at a time in which Sinai is experiencing an unprecedented rise in foreign-backed terrorist attacks. The most recent killed more than 300 civilians during Friday prayer services in the Rawda village mosque. It also comes at a time when the US is about to propose a new project for the resolution of the Palestinian question, although no details have been officially disclosed as yet. Is the intent to propose that unacceptable Sinai option and is the purpose of the report claiming that the Egyptian president had approved of it more than 30 years ago meant to give this some form of legitimacy? Is it also meant to imply that this might be the best way to put an end to incessant security threats in Sinai?

Former president Hosni Mubarak has emerged from his silence in order to put paid to the claims broadcast by BBC Arabic. In a statement last Wednesday, 30 November, he said that had never agreed to such a solution and that he personally refused to discuss it. The BBC report relied on a class of confidential documents in the British archives that automatically become declassified after 30 years. But while the British government declassified them, that does not mean it publicised the document referred to in the BBC report. So, who accessed it and made it available to the BBC? Or was it the BBC, itself, that accessed it and, if so, who notified the broadcasting firm that it was there to be accessed?

The document in question is a memorandum on a meeting between former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during a stopover in London on his way back from the US in February 1983. The document, originally in English, states that when Mubarak was asked whether it was possible to resettle Palestinians from Lebanon in Egypt he told the Americans that this would have to be in the framework of a comprehensive settlement. That meeting, it should be recalled, occurred after the Israeli attack against Palestinians in Lebanon, causing massive destruction and leading to the expulsion of the Palestinians from Lebanon. In this context, in particular, it is impossible to construe an agreement to resettle Palestinians in Egypt as permission for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Sinai as an alternative to one in the occupied territories. Clearly, the president’s remarks can only be interpreted in a humanitarian sense: he agreed to offer them shelter and a place to reside, not a homeland. Moreover, he made a point of insisting that this could only take place within the framework of a comprehensive political settlement. 

The Arabic translation of the text, however, states that Mubarak agreed to the “repatriation” of the Palestinians, a word that does not appear at all in the original English version. Accordingly, President Mubarak’s denial was closer to the truth than the BBC’s interpretation. As a footnote, here, the BBC has claimed that it obtained exclusive rights to publish the documents. How is it that a media company can monopolise the rights to publish an official state document that was released to the public? 

In all events, what we have, in fact, is an oral conversation in which Mubarak relates to Thatcher what he told the Americans. There exists no official document issued by the Egyptian government containing some form of agreement to resettle Palestinians in Egypt, let alone to establish a state for them in Sinai. By contrast, the Balfour Declaration, which is having its hundredth anniversary these days, was an official document issued by a British minister. It was not some passing conversation between Lord Balfour and Baron Rothschild. 

We should add two more important points. Firstly, the word “Sinai” never emerged in the context of that conversation between Mubarak and Thatcher, so the notion of the creation of a Palestinian state there, as the BBC attempted to suggest, did not even come up for discussion. What was being discussed was the fate of Palestinians forced to leave Lebanon due to a recent Israeli aggression. Secondly, the documents speak of Palestinians, not “the Palestinians”, meaning some, not all. The lack of the definite article indicates that they were talking about refugees as opposed to the citizens of an envisioned state. Obviously, every state has the choice to accept some refugees from a crisis in accordance with a country’s particular circumstances and capacities, just as other countries might accept some others, as is the case today with Syrian refugees. A state is an entity to which all its citizens  — not just some — have a right. 

But it is true that Egypt once indicated its approval of that scheme that Israel has been pushing for, namely to have a Palestinian state carved out of Sinai so that can officially annex all of the occupied Palestinian territories. That was in 2012, under Muslim Brotherhood rule. That was an anomaly; such a thing never occurred before or after that time. It was widely reported at the time that the Muslim Brotherhood government was ready to agree to a land swap with Israel whereby Egypt would hand over a portion of Sinai adjacent to Gaza for the purpose of creating a demilitarised Palestinian state and Israel, in exchange, would give Egypt an equal portion of the Negev. Then Israel would annex all the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rushed to Cairo to meet with then president Mohamed Morsi. In an interview that I conducted with the Palestinian president after that meeting, Abbas told me that he had tried his best to dissuade Morsi from that perverse project that no Palestinian could accept. Morsi’s response to him came as a shock. Morsi told him that the Palestinians in Gaza — meaning Hamas — had already agreed to the idea.

With the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt, that project that was being co-engineered with the Americans fell to the wayside. But it looks like certain parties want to revive it today by distorting or inventing facts and without mentioning that the president who has long refused to acknowledge that the Egyptians have rejected him is the same president who had been working with those parties in order to implement that project. Nor is it a surprise that Hamas at the time agreed. Hamas was the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood before the Muslim Brotherhood, itself, took up arms in broad daylight following their fall on 30 June 2013. So, who do those parties think they’re fooling?

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