The March 1955 outburst was organized jointly by the communists and Islamists to oppose a UN-Egyptian plan to transfer refugees in the Gaza Strip to the northwestern Sinai Desert. Widely supported by the masses and clear in its demands, the uprising eventually succeeded in putting an end to the resettlement project.
Background to the Outburst
The total population of the Gaza Strip in the beginning of 1948 was almost 80,000. By the end of the year, the population more than tripled, after almost 200,000 refugees from various Palestinian cities and villages flowed into the Strip during and after the Palestine War. The refugees were allocated to eight camps. After the signing of the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement on 24 February 1949, the Strip was ruled by an Egyptian military governor, who had the same privileges enjoyed by the British High Commissioner before the Nakba.
The July 1952 revolution in Egypt brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. In 1953 his administration was still finding its way on the foreign policy front while grappling with internal issues when it agreed to a plan to relocate 12,000 refugee families from the Gaza Strip to plots of land in the northwestern Sinai desert (after reclaiming the land by redirecting portions of Nile water to it annually). Negotiated between the Egyptian government and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the plan had the support of the US administration, which agreed to allocate $30 million to it. At the time, this resettlement project was considered dangerous, because its execution had been mapped out in detail and the Egyptian government and the UNRWA were both determined to see it through.
In 1953 Israeli forces began attacking the Palestinian refugee camps on the Gaza Strip, in an attempt to contain individual operations targeting Israeli settlements located near the borders of the Strip. On the night of 28 August, an Israeli military unit launched an attack on the al-Bureij Camp, which resulted in fifty civilian deaths. The attack was perceived as part of a strategy to dismantle the camps and pave the way for refugee relocation, and residents responded by holding a large protest at the al-Bureij Secondary School for refugees, demanding public freedoms and the establishment of a National Palestinian Guard to protect the camps’ borders.
Israeli Raid on 28 February 1955
In the beginning of 1954, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles hoped to bring all countries in the Middle East to support a far-reaching US plan to counter the Soviet Union, and toward that end he worked to resolve tensions in the region, beginning with Egypt and Israel. In the summer of 1954, after the Eisenhower administration facilitated an agreement between Egypt and Britain stipulating the withdrawal of British forces from their base on the Suez Canal, State Department officials started to draft a detailed proposal for a peace plan between Egypt and Israel, referred to under the code name Operation Alpha.
However, Israeli expansionists were not ready to proceed toward a peace agreement with Egypt, which became apparent after a “scandal” involving Israeli minister of defense Pinhas Lavon was revealed. Lavon had activated an espionage network inside Egypt, ordering several operations against select Egyptian, British, and US targets; the goal was to create instability to induce the British government to retain its troops in the Suez Canal zone. Israel’s aversion to peace was made even clearer when the new Minister of Defense, David Ben-Gurion — who was sworn in on 21 February 1955, after Lavon’s resignation — cemented his iron-grip policies with a devastating raid on the Gaza Strip, the most violent since the Israel-Egypt Armistice Agreement was signed.
On the evening of 28 February 1955, an Israeli paratrooper unit attacked an Egyptian military camp near the railway station in Gaza, killing seventeen soldiers in their sleep, ostensibly because Palestinian militants had killed an Israeli in Rehovot. The attack was also an ambush; an Egyptian force rushed to aid the camp’s soldiers, which led to more Egyptian military losses. The attack left thirty-eight dead and thirty-three injured. At the request of the Egyptian government, the UN Security Council convened and, on 29 March 1955, it issued resolution 106, condemning the Israeli attack on the Gaza Strip.
Popular Response to the Refugee Transfer Scheme
Popular movements against the Sinai relocation project had started as soon as Egyptian newspapers first published hints of a plan in May 1953. But on 1 March 1955, right after the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip, a mass demonstration took place at the Official Palestine School in Gaza, where teachers, students, bus drivers, and store owners chanted: “No relocation, no settlement/ Down with US agents” and “They drafted the Sinai project in ink/ We’ll erase it with blood.” Egyptian police forces opened fire on the protestors, killing Hosni Belal, a textile worker from the town of Majdal who had become a refugee in the Gaza Strip. Demonstrations were held in towns, villages, and camps throughout the Strip, from Beit Hanoun in the north to Rafah in the south. Protestors burned cars belonging to Egyptian military officials and attacked UN agency headquarters and UNRWA warehouses.
The protesters—communists, Muslim Brotherhood members, and independents — maintained their momentum over the next few days. The demonstrations were overseen by the Supreme National Committee, which held its meetings at the UNRWA Teachers’ Syndicate headquarters. Representatives of the committee were selected in each of the Strip’s eight camps, and subcommittees were formed to protect the protestors, which forced Egyptian authorities to authorize the Gaza Strip’s Director of Investigations, Saad Hamza, to negotiate with representatives of the Supreme National Committee. Indeed, two representatives —Secretary General of the Palestinian Communist Party Muin Bseiso and Muslim Brotherhood leader Fathi al-Balaawi — met with Hamza and communicated the protestors’ demands: a public announcement by official Egyptian media outlets of the cancelation of the Sinai relocation project; the training and arming of Palestinians in the camps so that they could defend themselves against Israeli raids; the trial of all officials who fired live bullets at protestors; civil freedoms for Palestinians in the Strip (most importantly the freedom to publish, assemble, and go on strike); and guarantees that those who had participated in the protests would not be pursued.
Soon after, the military governor of the Gaza Strip, Major General Abdallah Refaat — who had fled to Arish upon the outbreak of the protests — issued a statement responding to the Supreme National Committee’s demands, promising to end the Sinai relocation project, to draft a new law for training and arming residents of the Strip’s refugee camps, to guarantee civil freedoms, and not to harass participants in the protests.
However, those promises were quickly broken. Refaat called on Egyptian military battalions stationed in the Sinai Desert to launch a massive arrest campaign on the night of 8–9 March 1955; members of the Supreme National Committee, as well as many teachers, students, and workers, were arrested; they were sent to the Central Gaza Prison and to Arish and then transferred to Egypt’s General Prison, where they remained until July 1957. Refaat also dismantled the UNRWA Teachers’ Syndicate, ordering strong penal measures against anyone who instigated strikes or sit-ins.
After the Outburst
The Israeli raid on Egyptian military targets on the Gaza Strip on 28 February, as well as the mass protests that followed, constituted a change in the course of Egypt’s 1952 Revolution and the approaches of its leaders. In a speech addressing students of the Egyptian Military Academy, Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip was going to be a turning point in the history of Egypt and the region. This turning point was expressed in two major events at the time. Egypt signed a deal with Czechoslovakia for Soviet arms, on 27 September 1955, thereby breaking the West’s monopoly over arms imports to the region and to Third World countries. The deal was signed with Czechoslovakia and not the Soviet Union in an attempt to avoid any negative international reactions as the Egyptian government waited for international funding from the UN and the West for building the High Dam. The second event was the Egyptian leadership’s decision to invest in guerrilla operations with the Gaza Strip as their base, through the formation of Palestinian fida’i (freedom fighting) units headed by the director of the Egyptian Military Intelligence in the Strip, Lieutenant Colonel Mostafa Hafez. Those units were given the name “Battalion 141,” and their operations—which launched in September 1955—led to heavy Israeli losses. The operations of Battalion 141 stopped only after Israeli intelligence assassinated its commander in July 1956.
As to plans to relocate refugees outside the Gaza Strip, they were no longer part of Egypt’s policy for years to come. The policy would become the preserve of Israel after its occupation of the Strip and the Sinai Peninsula in June 1967. One of the diverse measures that Israel undertook during its occupation was to relocate thousands of refugees in the Egyptian town of Rafah in what was to be known as Canada Camp. Later, in the framework of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty signed in March 1979 and the withdrawal of the Israeli forces from the Sinai, Israel accepted the principle of repatriating the refugees back to the Strip. However, it took more than 10 years for the two sides to reach a plan for such repatriation, and it took another 10 years, until after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1993, for the last families to be able to move to the Strip.
Cossali, Paul and Clive Robson. Stateless in Gaza. London: Zed Books, 1986.
Filiu, Jean-Pierre. Gaza: A History. London: Hurst, 2014.
Palumbo, Michael. Imperial Israel. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.