Egyptian social media reacts to calls for evacuating Gaza residents into Sinai
Narratives calling for displacement of Gaza Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula met with rejection in Egyptian social media
BANNER: Family members carry their luggage as Palestinians, including foreign passport holders, wait on November 5, 2023, at the Rafah border crossing after evacuations were suspended following an Israeli strike on an ambulance. (Source: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalated, statements and narratives emerged regarding unsubstantiated Israeli plans to push out Gaza residents and permanently resettle them in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The narratives, which the Israeli government attempted to refute, circulated on social and traditional media across the Arab world, as Israel began its “complete siege” on the strip in response to Hamas’s surprise attack on October 7, 2023, mounting air and ground operations against Hamas that have left thousands of civilians dead. This case study measures reactions from Egyptian social media to various narratives from Israeli and Egyptian officials to relocate Gaza’s residents to the Sinai peninsula, whether temporarily or permanently.
The Gaza Strip, home to more than two million Palestinians along the eastern Mediterranean coast, borders Israel to the north and east and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula to the south. The Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza is the only path in and out of Gaza not controlled by Israel. While most of Israel’s military operations previously concentrated northern Gaza, the IDF began escalating attacks across southern Gaza over the first weekend in December 2023. These and other attacks have hampered efforts to get aid trucks into Gaza and to foreign nationals and wounded Palestinians out of the territory, while Egypt has largely kept the border closed except during limited periods of evacuation activity and humanitarian supply runs, including a week-long ceasefire in late November 2023.
The ongoing fighting in Gaza has enflamed the Arab world, including in Egypt, which has maintained relations with Israel since the two countries signed a 1979 peace treaty following the Camp David Accords, which among other things resulted in Israel withdrawing from Sinai and Egypt regaining sovereignty over the peninsula. While the two countries remain at peace, it has sometimes been described as a cold peace, in which the two governments cooperate on security matters and other shared interests while the general populations have remained extremely suspicious of the other side.
Heated rhetoric raises Egyptian fears of permanent Palestinian resettlement
Multiple current and former Israeli officials have made statements in support of forcing Gaza residents from their homes, including some advocating for resettlement in Sinai, fueling heated online discussion and debate in Egypt. Days following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the former head of the Israeli National Security Council, Giora Eiland, outlined in an opinion piece to Ynetnews a plan for Gaza to “become a place where no human being can exist,” as “there is no other option for ensuring the security of the State of Israel.” He continued, “Israel needs to create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, compelling tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to seek refuge in Egypt or the Gulf.”
That same week, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza and stated that Gazans in the north of the strip should go south for their own protection, as the IDF initially concentrated its military efforts in the north. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have managed to relocate south, but the journey remains extremely dangerous, particularly now that Israel has expanded military operations across the entire Gaza Strip. Adding to Palestinian fears, Likud minister Avi Dichter evoked the Nakba, the forced permanent removal of countless Palestinians from their homes during Israel’s war for independence in 1948. In a November 2023 radio interview, Dichter stated that Israel was “rolling out the Gaza Nakba,” adding, “Gaza Nakba 2023 – that’s how it’ll end,” implying that the relocation of residents would be permanent.
Previously in October, Israeli military commander Col. Richard Hecht advised anyone who can to “get out” through the Rafah border, while Major Gen. Ghassan Alian later appeared to threaten all Gazans when he remarked, “Human animals must be treated as such. There will be no electricity and no water [in Gaza], there will only be destruction. You wanted hell, you will get hell.” In an interview with Al Jazeera that same month, former Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called for the evacuation of Gaza residents and their relocation to temporary tent cities in the Sinai Desert, adding to Palestinian fears that such a move would not be temporary. These fears were reinforced when the Meshgav Institute, headed by former Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben Shabbat, advocated for the “unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the entire Gaza Strip” to Sinai.
Adding to ongoing speculation among Palestinians that any temporary evacuation into Sinai would become permanent, an Israeli Ministry of Intelligence proposal dated October 13, 2023 outlined an option in which Israel would push Gaza residents into refugee settlements in northern Sinai then prevent them from returning home. Israeli officials pushed back against widespread media reporting on the proposal, stating the document as a “hypothetical exercise” and had not been adopted as policy. The mere existence of the proposal, however, raised widespread suspicions in Arabic-language media about Israel’s intentions, particularly in Egypt.
Israeli authorities have pushed back against some of these statements, including suspending ministers from their portfolios. Amichay Eliyahu, a far-right ultranationalist serving as heritage minister who initially raised eyebrows on November 1 after posting footage of Israeli bulldozers operating in Gaza and expressing joy at seeing it “flattening” Gaza, found himself out of a job when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired him several days later after Eliyahu alluded to the possibility of dropping a nuclear weapon on Gaza.
“Every word has meaning when it comes to diplomacy,” Netanyahu later warned his colleagues during a November 12 cabinet meeting, criticizing them for their remarks, including references to the Nakba. “If you don’t know — don’t speak,” he continued, adding, “We must be sensitive.”
Netanyahu’s comments have not fully dampened escalatory rhetoric. Nissim Vaturi, far-right deputy speaker of the Knesset, posted an inflammatory tweet on November 17 in which he declared, “We are too humane. Burn Gaza now no less!” His tweet initially received a warning label from X stating that it might violate the platform’s polices regarding violent speech; X later took the additional step of removing it from the platform.
On November 17, Israel warned residents to evacuate the city of Khan Yunis, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip. “We’re asking people to relocate. I know it’s not easy for many of them, but we don’t want to see civilians caught up in the crossfire,” Netanyahu aide Mark Regev told MSNBC. Reuters added, “Such a move could compel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled south from the Israeli assault on Gaza City to relocate again, along with residents of Khan Younis, a city of more than 400,000, worsening a dire humanitarian crisis.” Israel later expanded its attacks on southern Gaza on December 2 following the collapse of the ceasefire.
Sinai as a ‘red line’
Reports of Israeli and international leaders pressuring Egyptian officials to accept Palestinian refugees, in addition to the circulated proposal and other public remarks on forced resettlement, fueled online conversations across the border in Egypt. Local media, including pro-government media outlets, reported on the document after it circulated in Israeli media and across social media platforms. These discussions highlighted allegations of previous attempts by Israel over the decades to resettle Gaza residents in Egypt, which Egypt and Jordan purportedly rejected.
Egypt has been vocal about its rejection of these proposals, describing them as the “liquidation of [the] Palestinian cause” and “displacement of Palestinians from their land,” as reiterated on October 18 by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi during a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. El-Sisi warned that if Palestinians in Gaza were displaced into Egypt, Palestinians in the West Bank could also be pushed into Jordan, allowing Israel to annex both territories. Jordan’s King Abdullah II also warned a day prior in a conference with Scholz against attempts to push Palestinians into Egypt or Jordan, calling it a “red line.”
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry also warned that forced displacement was no solution to the Palestinian crisis. In a press conference held in Sinai, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly reiterated Cairo’s stance, stating, “Egypt will not allow the Palestinian cause to be liquidated, neither at its expense nor at the expense of others.”
In direct response to the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence proposal, the spokesperson for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also voiced opposition, commenting that “we consider it a red line that we will not allow to be crossed. What happened in 1948 will not be allowed to happen again.”
Social media reactions
Social media users on X, previously known as Twitter, shared their rejection of plans to resettle Palestinian refugees in Sinai using the hashtag #سيناء_خط_احمر (“Sinai is a red line”). The hashtag was used as early as the day of Hamas’ October 7 attack in a post questioning where Gaza residents could flee with an attached screenshot of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on live TV warning Palestinians in Gaza to leave. One X user, @queenmasrya2, frequently posted the hashtag in October, including quote tweeting an October 8 televised report on Egypt’s state-affiliated Al-Qahera television show about plans to resettle Palestinians in Sinai.
The hashtag’s use spiked as more influential and verified users with large followings posted content with the hashtag.
In three posts cumulatively viewed more than 682,000 times on X, member of the National Assembly of Egypt Mahmoud Badr posted the hashtag in a post expressing support for El-Sisi and voiced his opposition to the “forced displacement project and the liquidation of the Palestinian cause,” adding that Egypt will defeat “the Zionist project” and “the traitorous [Muslim] Brotherhood.” Egyptian journalist Hossam Al Ghamry included the hashtag in a post sharing a propaganda video from the Egyptian military that ends with a statement from President El-Sisi saying, “We are not giving up Sinai for anyone, Sinai belongs to Egyptians or we die.” Editor-in-Chief of EgyptWatch Osama Gaweesh also posted the hashtag on X.
The DFRLab tracked the use of the hashtag between October 7 to 31 using the social media analysis tool Meltwater Explore. The hashtag was used by 67,440 users, receiving 125,528 mentions and 11,006 original tweets that were retweeted 70,080 times and quote-tweeted 9,973 times. The hashtag peaked a few days after Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel, then peaked again between October 16 to 22. The vast majority of the tweets came from Egypt.
Some Egyptian accounts later promoted a second hashtag, #استقبال_الجرحي_ليس_بيع_قضيه (“Welcoming the wounded is not selling the case”), after Egypt announced on November 1 that it was partially opening the Rafah border. Over a period of two days, the hashtag was used by 4,960 users, primarily in Egypt. The hashtag received 11,735 mentions and 1,035 original tweets that were retweeted 7,214 times and quote-tweeted 485 times. Among the most interacted with posts that included the hashtag was a tweet from Egypt Watch’s Gaweesh.
For the past year, the DFRLab has also tracked an inauthentic coordinated network promoting content in support of the Egyptian government. Accounts appearing to be part of this network actively promoted the hashtag, including posts that generated some of the highest levels of engagement for the hashtag.
Three identified accounts shared a similar X handle: @BASSEMBEKHET1, @BASSEMBEKHET2, and @BASSEMBEKHET3. An account previously named @BassemElMassry, currently posting as @BASSEMBEKHET1, is suspected to be a ringleader in the inauthentic network, as evidenced by the URL to one of the accounts’ previous posts redirecting to the new handle name. The DFRLab has previously observed @BassemElMassry switch handles to avoid detection. The profile picture used by these three accounts is also the same image used by @BassemElMassry in previous campaigns involving inauthentic coordination.
These three accounts frequently latch on to trending topics to promote narratives and hashtags in support of the Egyptian government.
Growing concerns and escalating rhetoric
President El-Sisi faces an arduous task in navigating the border situation and managing the expectations of the various domestic and international stakeholders, all while planning for the December 2023 presidential elections. As protests in Egypt and across the region took place in support of Palestine, El-Sisi noted the importance of the Palestinian cause for Egyptians.
Egyptian security forces have been fighting an insurgency in Sinai for over a decade and have been accused of committing serious abuses against civilians as the war against Islamic insurgents in the area escalated. The military has also carried out forced evictions and home demolitions without proper compensation or alternative homes for residents. The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights reported that Sinai residents were subjected to forced displacement operations in 2014, and homes were destroyed with explosives between 2017 and 2019.
Discussions about resettlement plans, even temporary ones, raise concerns in Egypt about hosting refugees in a volatile area where the military is already fighting an insurgency. It also raises concerns about Hamas organizing and potentially launching attacks on Israel from within Egypt’s borders and the consequences of such actions on Egypt’s national security, including the possibility that Israel could one day strike inside Egypt.
The identity of Egypt’s political and military leadership, and Egyptians perception of the security apparatus, are significantly intertwined with Egypt’s history of fighting wars against Israel. Egyptians celebrate a national holiday annually on October 6 to mark the anniversary of launching a surprise attack in 1973 to take back the Sinai Peninsula. This October marked the fiftieth anniversary of the conflict, known in Israel and the West as the Yom Kippur War, with various events and parades to commemorate the occasion in Egypt. As information started circulating about the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, pro-government and pro-security forces content was already circulating in relation to the October 6 holiday. The narrative amplified around the holiday revolved around the strength of the Egyptian military and its ability to win battles. Later, in a show of military strength on October 25, President El-Sisi conducted an inspection of the 4th Armor Division on in Suez, with media sharing footage of a military parade of tanks, armory vehicles, and saluting soldiers.
Concerns over Sinai continue to be top of mind among Egyptian officials. Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly reiterated the country’s stance on Palestinian displacement into Sinai during a general session of Egyptian parliament on November 21. “Allowing the entry of two million Palestinians under the current conditions would mean the permanent liquidation of the Palestinian issue, which Egypt will not accept under any circumstances,” Madbouly said.
“Any scenario aiming to displace the Palestinians will receive a decisive response from Egypt in accordance with international law,” he added.
Cite this case study:
Dina Sadek, “Egyptian social media reacts to calls for resettling Gaza residents in Sinai,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), December 4, 2023, https://dfrlab.org/2023/12/04/egyptian-social-media-reacts-to-calls-for-evacuating-gaza-residents-into-sinai.