Egypt Angered by Israeli Plans To Invade Rafah
While Egypt may be deploying additional security forces along its border and sending humanitarian aid into Gaza, it can’t look like it is collaborating with Israel and conspiring against Hamas and the Palestinians, especially regarding their displacement
By Muhammad Al-Kassim/The Media Line
Tension is rising between Egypt and Israel over the latter’s decision to invade the city of Rafah in southern Gaza, where nearly 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltered. This decision comes amid increasing Egyptian fears that Palestinians could attempt to flee the Israeli offensive by attempting to rush the Egyptian border.
More than half of Gaza’s population is currently squeezed into Rafah, a small city along Egypt’s border, where they are living in miserable, inhumane conditions in cramped tent cities. The city’s Palestinians are left with nowhere to go, awaiting Israel’s military invasion.
Within the last two weeks, Cairo has reportedly deployed about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza.
Meanwhile, the Israeli military has stepped up its air strikes and bombardment of the city, which had a quarter of a million residents before Hamas’ October 7 attacks.
The Office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had ordered the military to develop a dual plan to evacuate Rafah and crush four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.
Despite the overwhelming Israeli support for the war, positions differ within the country’s war cabinet regarding carrying out a military operation in Rafah. Disagreements over the ground invasion have also surfaced between the political level and the military establishment.
These disagreements surfaced in the wake of escalating protests demanding a comprehensive exchange deal that would lead to the return of all Israeli captives held by Hamas.
The relationship between the political and military echelons has come under strain due to Israel’s military operation in Gaza, unleashed in response to the October 7 Hamas attacks in southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed, and another 253 were taken hostage inside Gaza.
Israel launched a brutal military offensive in Gaza, where more than 28,000 have been killed and three times as many injured, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Egypt has repeatedly raised the alarm over the possibility that Israel’s offensive could send desperate Gazans into Sinai while bristling at Israel’s suggestions that it would retake full control of the Gaza-Egypt border corridor to ensure the demilitarization of the Palestinian territory.
“Israel-Egyptian ties are vital and necessary for both sides, especially when Egypt fears the great weight of refugees into the Saini desert if the border collapses,” Dr. Dikla Cohen, a research fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Institute, told The Media Line.
“Things are not very simple now in the bilateral between Israel and Egypt, but the peace treaty, which has lasted for 45 years, is still solid,” added Cohen.
Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than four decades. In recent years, they have extended ties through Israeli exports of natural gas and security coordination around their shared border and the Gaza Strip.
However, Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shukry told Al Ahram newspaper that any Israeli ground attack on Rafah would have disastrous consequences.
Cohen said that despite these threats, Egypt told Hamas that without a deal for the hostages, Israeli would launch its offensive on Rafah in two weeks, which, according to Cohen, shows that Cairo is still acting as a “mediator and is still playing a vital role in the Middle East.”
“The military coordination between them [Egypt and Israel] will allow things to move a little smoother; I mean, Israel will open a new corridor backward from Rafah to Khan Younis when the military operation ends in Khan Younis, and that should alleviate the pressure,” said Cohen.
Egypt has stated its opposition to the displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, describing the scenario as part of a wider Arab rejection of any repeat of what Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when some 700,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their homes in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
“Egypt is the largest Arab country, and it has a responsibility to act that way; Israel’s actions are undermining Cairo’s standing in the region,” US-based Middle East expert Hasan Awwad told The Media Line.
“[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi can’t look like he is conspiring against Hamas and the Palestinians in Gaza with Israel,” said Awwad, adding, “He may take steps like deploying additional security forces or sending more humanitarian aid, but he cannot afford to look like he’s collaborating with Israel.”
Egypt expressed willingness on Friday to work with the US to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, saying Cairo has already done so through the Rafah Crossing in collaboration with the global community.
Egypt had “opened the Rafah border crossing from its side without any restrictions or conditions,” the Egyptian Presidency said in a statement in response to remarks made by US President Joe Biden, who claimed to have convinced President el-Sisi to open the crossing gate and allow aid to enter.
“Referring to US President Joe Biden’s remarks on 8 February 2024 on the situation in the Gaza Strip, the Presidency of the Republic confirms the alignment of stances and the persistent joint efforts and close cooperation between Egypt and the United States of America with regard to achieving calm in the Gaza Strip,” the Egyptian statement said.
The Egyptian Presidency added: “With regard to Egypt’s position and role in delivering humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and relief to the Palestinian brothers, the Presidency of the Republic definitively states that, from the first moment, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing from its side without any restrictions or conditions.”
The statement clarified that Egypt “has mobilized massive humanitarian aid and relief, flowing from both Egypt itself and countries worldwide who delivered their support directly to Al Arish Airport.”
“Egypt has exerted significant pressure on all concerned parties to ensure the flow of this aid into the sector. However, the persistent bombing of the Palestinian side of the crossing by Israel, which was repeated four times, obstructed and halted the delivery process,” continued the statement.
Egypt emphasized that “once the shelling of the other side of the crossing ended, Egypt immediately undertook the necessary repairs and technical adjustments, facilitating the resumption of the flow of a substantial amount of humanitarian aid and assistance to the people of the Strip.”
The statement further stressed that any attempts or endeavors that seek to forcibly displace the Palestinians from their land are doomed to fail.
While acknowledging his efforts to get aid into Gaza, President Biden mistook Egypt with Mexico during a White House press conference on Thursday: “I think, as you know, initially, the president of Mexico [Egypt], Sisi, did not want to open up the gate to humanitarian material to get in. I talked to him. I convinced him to open the gate.”
Continued Biden: “I talked to Bibi (Netanyahu) to open the gate on the Israeli side,” he said, adding, “I’ve been pushing really hard, really hard, to get humanitarian assistance into Gaza. There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s got to stop.”
Since el-Sisi’s coup and ascension to power in 2013, Egypt’s military has consolidated its grip in northern Sinai while battling what it claims to be an Islamist insurgency, which escalated a decade ago.
Well before the current war in Gaza broke out, Egypt said it had destroyed tunnels through which smuggling into Gaza had previously flourished. It had also cleared a buffer zone near the country’s border with Gaza, displacing tens of thousands of people and destroying thousands of homes.
Both Egypt and Israel have maintained a blockade on Gaza, strictly limiting the movement of people and goods across its borders, since Hamas took control there in 2007.
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