by Abdel Qadir Yasin

It was only the heavy sound of gunfire that broke the silence, which blanketed the quarantined refugee camp. The Egyptian police guarding the camp took cover by diving into the water of the Suez Canal, which bordered the camp on both its northern and western sides. The eastern and southern ends of the camp were hemmed in by the sand of Sinai desert. As soon as the policemen hit the water, a loud shout came from the camp calling for the downfall of king Farouq. It wasn't long before news of the incident reached Cairo and the social figures of the Palestinian community, mostly from Jaffa1, trotted to 'Abdeen Palace in order to record their names in a book of honor and apologize for the actions of the Palestinians held under quarantine.



This incident happened in al-Mazarita at the southeast end of Port Said where Egyptian security police had gathered hundreds of Palestinians who had fled Jaffa in late April 1948 as a result of the horrors committed by Zionist groups (Haganah, Stern Gang, etc.) in the city. These groups had besieged the city on three sides, leaving the remaining side, the Mediterranean Sea, as a free passage for the Palestinians to escape. The Palestinians of Jaffa had no alternative but to flee in their boats standing off the coast. They didn't want to wait for the massacre of Deir Yassin to be repeated, as had happened with many other places in Palestine.

The large majority of the boats sailed toward the south. Those who fled to Egypt found themselves in very difficult conditions. The al-Mazarita incident was only the beginning. Egyptian security forces transferred the Palestinian refugees from al-Mazarita to a military camp in a place near al-Kantara on the eastern side of the Sinai desert, which had been abandoned by the British army. Al-Kantara was like a prison. Residents of this camp were only allowed to see their relatives through the barbed wire around the camp via permits issued to their relatives. Residents of the camp were not allowed to leave the camp unless they could find an Egyptian guarantor who had to prove to Egyptian security officials that he would be responsible for the Palestinian family, including the provision of food, clothing and shelter. Under these restrictions, very few families were able to find a guarantor. The majority continued to suffer inside the camp.

After more than a year, residents of the camp began to search for ways to provide for their basic needs. A site for a school was chosen while teachers and a headmaster was elected from among the many who were ready to assume responsibility for the school. Another site was chosen to build a mosque and still another to build a playground for the children at the camp. They also planted the land. The Egyptian government provided the camp with military rations, which were cooked and distributed by young males in the camp, the same way food was prepared and distributed in military camps. The Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs, meanwhile, assumed overall responsibility for the affairs of the camp residents.

During the summer of 1949, the Egyptian Minister of Education 'Ali Ayoub visited the camp. Residents, who had become frustrated with the poor living conditions in the camp, demonstrated and demanded that the government transfer them back to Gaza. The signing of the armistice agreement between Egypt and Israel had made this transfer possible for the first time since the refugees left their homes and lands in Palestine. A few days after this event, trucks arrived at the camp. All 7,000 residents were transferred to a waiting train, which transported them to al-Maghazi camp2 near Deir al-Balah.

The al-Mazarita incident left Palestinians with many impressions concerning Egyptian attitudes towards the refugees, in particular, and the Palestinians in general. Since that incident, Egyptian security - in addition to other Egyptian ministries - has assumed responsibility for the Palestinians in Egypt. Moreover, the legal status of Palestinians in the country has been connected, first with the whole political and security situation, and second with the nationalist leanings of the ruling authorities.
1 The social figures had arrived in Egypt by the train after acquiring a visa to enter Egypt from the Egyptian Council in Jerusalem in 1947-48.
2 This may explain that the majority of the camp inhabitants were originally from Jaffa.

Background - Palestinians in Egypt

From the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine in the summer of 1922, Egypt had been the most attractive place of refuge for Palestinians. During that time, British Mandate authorities had begun to prepare Palestine for the Zionist project. Laws were drawn up to advance British policy, which called for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Palestinians1
became the victims of these laws, which resulted in economic, social, political, cultural and cooperative hardships and losses for the Palestinian community.

Those Palestinians who had sufficient financial resources and/or those who were less connected to their homeland left the country due to these conditions. Many Palestinians found Egypt, which had gained some political independence, to be a refuge from the troubles in Palestine. Each new conflict or dispute with Zionist forces or the British Mandate authorities brought a new wave of Palestinians seeking refuge in Egypt. Most of the leading participants in the national rebellions of 1929 and 1936 against British policy in Palestine and the Zionist project acquired Egyptian citizenship.

A second group of Palestinians found refuge in Egypt during the third rebellion, the period between the introduction of the UN Partition Plan of November 1947 and the establishment of the Jewish State on 15 May 1948. Some Palestinians entered Egypt with visas obtained from the Egyptian Consulate in Jerusalem shortly after the UN decided to partition Palestine, while others fled to Cairo and were arrested by the Egyptian authorities at al-Abasiyah Camp and taken care of by Mohammad 'Ali Charitable Society.

Another group of refugees reached Egypt as a result of the Suez Crisis in 1956.
During the 1967 war, Israeli forces arrested about 1,800 Palestinian men of draft age2 and deported them to Egypt. Others fled to Egypt during the war, with still others arriving in Egypt at the end of the war due to Israeli terrorism and intimidation.

Palestinian Population in Egypt 3 
















% Total

14 >




65 <


It is almost impossible to determine the exact number of Palestinian refugees in Egypt. There was no census of refugees in 1948, in part because of concerns about the refugee presence in the country. Some estimates placed the number of initial refugees at around 11,600.4By 1960, the number of Palestinian refugees in Egypt had reached about 15,500 and were distributed over 14 Egyptian districts.5 The number of Palestinians climbed to 33,000 in 1969.

In 1976, Palestinians comprised the largest number (29.3%) of all non-Egyptian Arabs in Egypt. Iraqis were next at 19.9%. Jordanians at that time formed about 5.65% of all Arabs in Egypt.6 A high percentage of Jordanians were Palestinians holding the Jordanian citizenship since they were settled either in the East or West Bank of the Jordan River. In the 1980s the number of Palestinian refugees reached 35,500 with some 8,000 of this total regarded as residing illegally in Egypt.

In spring 1995, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior announced that the government had conducted a count of Palestinian Gazans who were residents in Egypt and holders of Egyptian travel documents. According the Interior Ministry there were 89,000 Palestinians in this category. The survey also revealed that there were about 10-20,000 Palestinians residing in Egypt without official permits.

Palestinians who entered Egypt in 1948 numbered about 35,000 in spring 1995. The total number of Palestinians residing in Egypt reached 135,000-145,000.7 The number of Palestinians holding Egyptian travel permits reached 257,000 in 1996,8 but this number cannot be regarded as the exact number of Palestinians in Egypt. Many Palestinians who possess Egyptian travel documents are forbidden from entering Egypt and thus find residence and employment elsewhere.

Geographical Distribution

The geographic distribution of Palestinian refugees in Egypt has been dependent upon a number of factors, such as housing, employment, and the availability of services. In the mid-80s about 94 % of Palestinians in Egypt were residing in urban areas with the remaining number residing in the countryside.9 Cairo itself attracted about half of the Palestinians (52%) followed by Alexandria and al-Giza.10 Concerning the countryside11 al-Sharqiya district attracted the largest number of Palestinians followed by al-Dukaliya.12 The number of districts in which Palestinians lived decreased from 14 to 10 after the Sinai desert was occupied by Israel and the inhabitants of all cities there - Egyptian and Palestinians- were forced to leave. About 25,000 Palestinians resided in the Sinai.

Residency Status

Concerning residency, Palestinian refugees in Egypt were divided into several categories according to the period of entry. Apart from category B, residency status is renewed annually.

A. Those who entered Egypt before 1948.
B. Those who entered Egypt between 1948-1953 and who had to renew their residency every five years. Those who were residents for more than ten years had to renew their residency once each three years.
C. Newcomers.

Until 1960, all Palestinians in Egypt and Gaza held passports issued by the All Palestine Government, but in 1960, the passports were replaced by Egyptian travel documents, which required holders to obtain a visa to enter Egypt.13

In 1984, legislation concerning the development of state income was adopted under which Palestinians were no longer considered to be Egyptian nationals. Under the new regulations Palestinians were required to pay a fee of 42.5 Egyptian pounds for annual residency. Only 2% of all Palestinians in Egypt were able to afford this fee. Those Palestinians who were considered recent arrivals in Egypt were required to spend 180US$ each month.14 Palestinians who could not provide an "acceptable" reason for residence in Egypt, i.e., employment and study, had to maintain an account in the bank or at the post office of 500 Egyptian pounds. In 1996 this amount was increased to 2,000 Egyptian pounds.

Egypt is the only Arab country that has required Palestinians to regularly renew their residency status. Prior to traveling outside of Egypt, Palestinians must obtain a visa in order to re-enter the country. Egyptian travel documents held by Palestinians contain a list of countries to which travel is valid. This new status created a lot of difficulties for Palestinians passing through the Egyptian border, including lengthy waiting periods. Since August 1996, however, these restrictions have been relaxed for Palestinians from Gaza.15


After the 1952 revolution, which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, "The Higher Committee of Refugee Affairs" initiated relief services according to the refugee profiles derived from a survey of Palestinian passports. Palestinians were divided into five groups according to their living conditions list in the following table. Sufficient information was not available to classify 214 families.16

Thirty pounds were allocated as a maximum limit of monthly assistance for each family. Families in Group D received additional financial support (not including emergency allowances) up to a maximum of 5 Egyptian pounds per month.


Income (pounds)



10< Member/Month



1.5-10 member






>1 member



Those who were Willing to return to Gaza or go to another Arab Country and had insufficient income to do so .

Medication was also covered. Families with more than eight members also received additional support.17

In October 1954, the Higher Committee responsible for Palestinian refugee affairs held a meeting with representatives of the Egyptian Red Crescent and several international NGOs and agreed that assistance would be provided for 5,000 refugees annually. This number soon reached 7,000 refugees. According to ration cards held by families in groups C and D, each member received basic staples like flour, oil, and milk. Very few families in group B held ration cards. After 1967, assistance for Palestinians with an income of 7,965 Egyptian pounds discontinued affecting about 1,417 families with 8,017 members.18

The circle of disabled families began to increase rapidly as a result of the many obstacles Palestinians faced especially in employment (see employment below). Only a small number of families (approximately 30) received support from the PLO in response to their deteriorating economic conditions, with the exception of families of Palestinian martyrs who were provided with a monthly income of between 250 and 960 Egyptian pounds. Assistance to Palestinian families of martyrs from the 'Ayn Jaloot Units, however, was not provided by the All Palestine Government in Gaza even though payments had been made into the provident fund.

When PLO support for the Palestinian Charitable Society was cut, the Society began to collect donations and provide assistance to needy Palestinian families. About 420 Palestinian families benefited from monthly assistance distributed by the Society. Students, the sick, and families of the deceased were also given assistance. The Society also supported income-generating projects and training programs.19 The Palestinian Red Crescent has provided further assistance for medical treatment and distribution of medications with the help of the Palestine hospital in Cairo.

Employment Status

Initially, Palestinians who fled to Egypt were forbidden to work. This prohibition included voluntary work. The government of Mohammed Fahmi al-Nakrashi, believed that "work [would] make the Palestinians forget their homeland." This attitude resulted in discrimination against the Palestinian refugees in many areas: residence, travel, and, of course, employment.

Discrimination against Palestinians was relaxed somewhat with the 1952 revolution. In 1954, a series of laws were drawn up which accorded Palestinians the same employment rights as Egyptian nationals. Professionals, such as doctors, midwives, and dentists were accorded the same rights of employment as Egyptian nationals.20 Palestinians also received treatment in Egyptian hospitals and medication without charge.21 In addition, Palestinians, unlike other Arabs residing in Egypt, were granted commercial licenses and were able to import and export goods.

In the early 60s, Palestinians in Egypt were employed as professionals in industry, economics, construction, and other areas. Palestinians also worked in the service sector in restaurants, hotels etc.22 During the 1960s, moreover, opportunities abounded for investment by Palestinian capitalists. Approximately 20 Palestinians owned medium sized factories; another 55 owned real estate, including hotels, while 15 owned farms. Many others invested in construction.23 Between 1967 and 1973, Palestinians in Egypt owned about 222 commercial establishments, including 58 restaurants and shops, 74 clothing and jewelry shops, 32 tourist agencies and trading offices, 46 leather factories and many others in manufacturing.24

The advent of the Sadat regime with the sudden death of Nasser in 1970, however, brought with it a period in which life became more and more difficult for Palestinians. After the murder of the well-known Egyptian writer Yousef al-Seba'i in Larnaka, Cyprus on 18 February 1978, by Abu Nidal, the persecution of Palestinians increased. Palestinians began to face an increasing number of obstacles and legal restrictions reminiscent of the collective punishment used by British Mandate authorities and Zionist forces in Palestine during the Second World War (1939-1945) and after 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza.
New legislation in 1978 stripped away the status of Palestinians; no longer were Palestinians considered to hold the same employment status as Egyptian nationals.25 The Ministry of Labor decided to bar Palestinians from trade and commerce. Unlike other foreigners, only those who had been married to Egyptian women for more

Area of Employment, 1985 Census26 

Area of Employment 

% of Workforce

Social Services


(Including restaurants and hotels)






Agriculture & fishing




than five years were excluded from these two decisions. Palestinians were also denied the right to own cultivated land.27 Egyptian women married to Palestinians were treated the same way. These new laws drove many Palestinians to the Gulf States.28

According to a 1985 census, 86.5% of all Palestinians (above the age of six) were employed.29 Women comprised only 8.1% of all Palestinian laborers. About a third of the laborers were self-employed, with the remaining employed in the public or private sectors.30 The reason for the small number of workers in agriculture is related to the lack of cultivated land. Additionally, Palestinians themselves preferred to stay in the Egyptian cities rather than the countryside. Most of them directed their efforts, therefore, towards industry, commerce and other similar sectors. Approximately 2,500 Palestinians are managing investments worth 15-20 million Egyptian pounds in hotels, restaurants, transportation and many other services.31


In 1955 Palestinian students began to receive assistance from the Egyptian government. In 1965-1966 about 1,192 students received 48 Egyptian pounds each (about US$110). Those who excelled in their studies received 100 Egyptian pounds. Enrollment of Palestinian students in Egyptian universities increased rapidly until it reached 5,642 students (from the Gaza Strip only) in mid fifties and sixties.32 Palestinian and Egyptian students alike were exempt from university fees. The number of government scholarships to Palestinians at that time reached about 1,030.

Since the early 1960s, many Palestinians who were active in the Palestine Student's Union became active leaders of the resistance including, for example, Yasser Arafat, Salah Khalaf, Farouq al-Kadoumi, Tayseer Koba'a, Amin al-Hindi, Zuhair al-Khateb, Nadim Khoury, Mo'in Basaso, Lutfi Ghantos and Dr. Kamal al-Khalidi.

This situation came to an end, however, with the killing of al-Seba'i. In 1978, the Egyptian Minister of Education announced that Palestinians would not be allowed to study at government schools. Those students whose parents were working with the special 'Ayn Jaloot Units, and those students whose parents worked in public sectors in Gaza were exempt from this new restriction. New laws resulted in significant hardships for Palestinian students.33Students were required to pay fees (about 600-1200 pounds sterling) and were forbidden from entering certain colleges such as medicine, pharmacology, science, politics, economics, and journalism.34

With the implementation of this legislation, the number of Palestinians students in Egypt was reduced to 10 % of that before the signing of the Camp David Accords. Following the signing of the Accords hundreds of Palestinian students were arrested and imprisoned in Cairo, Alexandria, and Asyut. A number of Palestinian writers and journalists were also arrested and deported to Baghdad at their own expense.

Political Situation

In the early 50s several clubs, like the Arab Palestine Club, were established in Egypt to strengthen the relationship between Palestinians and Egyptians, provide assistance and raise awareness about the Palestinian refugee situation. As soon as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was formed in summer of 1964, it adopted Cairo as a center for its offices. Permission to open a radio station, The Voice of Palestine, was granted by Egyptian authorities in the same year. After the war in 1967, the Egyptian authorities allowed Fateh to work in public. A second radio station operated by Fateh was opened following the battle of al-Karama, Jordan in March 1968. The two stations were unified a year later.

The Popular Front, on the other hand, had to secretly open an office in Cairo under the name of the Bahranian Liberation Front. Fateh, also, was not immune from the changing political conditions in Egypt. In 1974, Egyptian authorities closed down the party's radio station after it aired criticism of Egyptian acceptance of the Roger's Plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The station, however, was later re-opened. Members of both the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine also faced arrest and deportation by the Egyptian security police. Palestinian members of the communist parties faced a similar fate after the Camp David Accords.

Palestinians in Egypt also organized unions. In 1963, about fifty Palestinian women formed the Palestinian Women's League, which eventually became part of The General Union of the Palestinian Woman in 1965. Another union for workers' rights was also established in 1965, but shifted its activities to Damascus after the Camp David Accords. The General Union of Palestinian Writers adopted Cairo as its center following its establishment in 1966. A second writers' union, the General Union of Palestine Writers and Journalists, which was formed in Beirut in 1972, also opened a branch in Egypt. This branch continued until the Camp David Accords when four of its member were arrested and deported.

Only Fateh was allowed to work openly along with 25 members of the Palestinian National Council. Nevertheless, other parties continue to garner support from Palestinians in Egypt. In fact, most of the Palestinian community in Egypt remains opposed to the Oslo Accords. This opposition finds substance in the writings of Palestinians like Dr. Ahmed Sudki al-Dajani, Moh'd Khalid al-Az'ar and the author.

Palestinians in Egypt continue to suffer and endure, increasing their desire for an independent state in which their rights will be secured and where they will be free from the anxiety of expulsion and transfer.


1 The general term Palestinians is used for brevity. Under the British Mandate, Jews, Greeks, Armenians and persons from other communities residing in Palestine were considered Palestinians.
2 Dr. Nadera al-Sarraj, a.o., Arab Palestinians in Egypt, Cairo: Arab Future House, 1986, pp. 40-41.
3 Dr. Salah Abdel-Jaber Issa, "The Arabs in Egypt According to the Censuses (1897-1986)", Magazine for Arab Studies and Research, Cairo, #219, 1991, pp. 73-102.
4 L.A. Brand, Palestinians in the Arab World: Institution Building and the Search for State, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, p. 43.
5 Ibid., pp. 49-51.
6 Ibid.
7 al-Wafd, Cairo (7/3/1995).
8 'Awni Salam, "Estimate of the Palestinian Population in Egypt", Arab Palestinians in Egypt, pp.16-17.
9Ibid., p.16.
10Brand, pp. 49-51.
11 Abdel Qader Yasin and Sari Hanafi, Olivieh Sanmartin, "Palestinians in Egypt in North Sinai", Ramallah, SHAML (Palestinian Diaspora and Refugee Center), 1996.
13 Under the 1960 law was categories into special, ordinary and temporary, with most Palestinians qualifying only for the temporary permit. Lex Takkenberg, The Status of Palestinian Refugees in International Law, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, p. 152.
14 Moh'd Khaled al-Az'ar, "Palestinians in Egypt between the Present and the Future," Arab Palestinians in Egypt, p.109.
15 Abbas Shiblak, "Residency Status and Civil Rights of Palestinian Refugees in Arab Countries" 45, SHAML monograph series, No.1.
16 al-Sarraj, pp. 35-37.
17 Ibid.
18 Ibid., p. 38.
19 Book of the Palestinian Charitable Society under No. 3118 at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Cairo, (1998), pp. 1-4.
20 Laws #415-416, #481 and #537 respectively.
21 Brand, Ibid. pp.55-56.
22 Issa.
23 Abdullah Kamal, Palestinians in Egypt, Refugees and Millionaires, Cairo: (13/9/1993), pp. 26-29.
24 Salam, p. 18.
25 Laws #47-48 of 1979.
26 Salam, p. 18.
27 Law #104 of 1985.
28 Ibid. See also al-Az'ar, pp. 109-110.
29 Salam, pp. 17-18.
30 Ibid. p. 18.
31 Ibid.
32 Ibid. pp. 56-57.
33 Laws #87 of 1983 and #75 of 1984.
34 al-Az'ar, pp. 99, 112-113. See also al-Sarraj.