How The War Is Squeezing Egypt From All Sides
The closure of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egpty, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, pose urgent and complex questions for decision-makers in Egypt. There are also wider regional questions that can no longer be swept aside.
CAIRO — The Rafah border crossing, the only passage in or out of the besieged Gaza Strip from Egypt, was closed indefinitely on Tuesday following three Israeli airstrikes on the Palestinian side of the crossing in less than 24 hours.
The first airstrike came late on Monday night, causing the temporary suspension of work at the crossing. The second strike came on Tuesday, leading the Egyptian side to halt all work until further notice and a third strike followed later on Tuesday afternoon.
The crossing was the only exit route that Palestinians could use to leave the densely populated Gaza Strip, which has been under intense Israeli bombing since the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, launched an unprecedented attack in Israel-held territory to the north of Gaza on Saturday morning. About 1,000 Israelis were killed in the offensive and another 150 were taken as prisoners. In retaliation, Israel has launched the largest bombing campaign it has undertaken on the strip in years, killing 830 Palestinians, and has cut off water, electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza.
The closure of the crossing and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza pose urgent and complex questions for decision-makers in Egypt regarding their role in the conflict and the repercussions of the deteriorating situation in Gaza amid a critical and sensitive political and economic situation in Egypt.
Five high-ranking Egyptian political and diplomatic sources, all speaking to Mada Masr on condition anonymity over the past two days, unpacked these questions and the difficulty entailed in responding to them in a fast-changing and volatile moment that demands decisive and prompt action.
The sources identified several main questions facing Egypt right now. The first relates to the possibility that tens of thousands of refugees of Gaza’s 2-million-person population could head toward Egypt’s eastern borders attempting to escape from Gaza to Sinai. The second question is how far is Egypt able to contain the situation through mediation initiatives amid its concerns that its historical regional role in managing Palestinian affairs could be further sidelined. According to the sources, these questions are linked to the challenges of the domestic situation and the fear that the current crisis could be used to exert pressure on the Egyptian regime to extract various concessions.
Fear of a total collapse in Gaza
The first question is the more urgent: How is Egypt supposed to act if the situation in Gaza completely collapses? Especially with the ongoing talk of an Israeli ground invasion of the strip and tens of thousands of displaced people heading toward the Egyptian border.
The urgency of the question arises from rapid developments that have occurred over the past two days. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Gaza residents to leave if they wanted to survive. It is unclear how Palestinians can leave the strip that has been under siege for nearly two decades, especially after the Israeli defense minister announced a total blockade that includes cutting off water, electricity and fuel. Israeli media outlets also reported that Israel had threatened to target any humanitarian aid convoys that Egypt allows into the strip.
An Egyptian government source denies that Israel has threatened to target Egyptian aid convoys, but says that Israel has repeatedly rejected Egypt’s requests for the provision of aid to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Faced with refusal from Israel, Egypt was forced to return aid trucks that were already close to the border and heading toward Gaza, according to the source.
With no aid allowed into Gaza, the question of Palestinians’ mass displacement has become more pressing, the source says.
The only logical answer would be for Palestinians to exit Gaza to Egypt via the Rafah border crossing, which is the only remaining crossing for Palestinians.
When asked about the fate of Palestinian displaced people, an Israeli military spokesperson on Monday evening confirmed this logic, indicating that they could go to Egypt. The statement was widely circulated by media outlets around the world, heightening Egypt’s concern about the possibility.
Following this, Egyptian and Arab media outlets reported statements from anonymous Egyptian “sovereign” and “security” sources, which is unusual, especially for a tightly state-controlled press landscape in Egypt that rarely deviates from official statements. Yesterday, Al Qahera News quoted “high-level Egyptian sources” warning of attempts to push Palestinians in Gaza toward the Egyptian borders and stating that “Egyptian sovereignty is “inviolable” and that “the Occupation authority,” not Egypt, “is responsible for creating humanitarian corridors to save the people of Gaza.”
Cairo rejects the mass displacement of Palestinian Gaza residents to Sinai.
Anonymous Egyptian security sources also told Sky News Arabia on Tuesday that “there is a plan to decimate Palestinian lands and force Palestinians to choose between death and displacement,” and that Egypt will confront “Israeli efforts to settle Gaza residents in Sinai.”
This seemed to convey a specific message: that Cairo rejects the mass displacement of Palestinian Gaza residents to Sinai. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi emphasized this point in a Tuesday address that there would be “no compromise or negligence of Egypt’s national security under any circumstances.”
Cairo has taken “strict security measures to ensure the safety of its borders,” the Egyptian government source adds.
Simultaneously with Egypt’s messaging and after Israel called for refugees to head to Egypt, Israel issued a clarification that the Rafah crossing is closed, followed by a confirmation that there is “no official Israeli call to direct Gaza residents towards Egyptian territories.” This was further emphasized by the Israeli ambassador to Egypt in a statement late on Tuesday night.
Participants attend an Arab League extraordinary meeting this week at organization headquarters in Cairo.
Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua via ZUMA
But with the crossing closed, how can potentially displaced Palestinians leave? The only scenario that comes to mind is what took place 15 years ago, when thousands of Palestinians broke the barrier between Egypt and Gaza and rushed into Sinai to get food and fuel due to the Israeli blockade of the strip after Hamas took control in 2007.
The Egyptian government source confirms to Mada Masr that Cairo “will not allow” a repeat of this scenario.
Whatever Egypt’s position, however, there is no ruling out that displacement could happen, especially if tens of thousands of displaced people are already heading toward Egypt. The country has already started logistical preparations and has a plan ready to implement if instructed by the Egyptian presidency, which includes setting up tents in the Egyptian cities of Sheikh Zuwayed and Rafah as well as security cordons to prevent infiltration and a ban on Palestinians entering the city of Arish under any circumstances. This means that if Palestinians cross into Egypt, they will be allowed only so far as the 14-kilometer-long, 500-meter-deep buffer zone in Rafah, which Egypt began constructing in 2014.
That plan took on an international dimension late on Tuesday night. NBC News cited administration officials to report that the United States was coordinating with other countries on a plan that would offer safe passage out of Gaza for civilians who risk getting caught in the crossfire through a southern corridor into Egypt.
For decision-makers in Egypt, despite the necessary logistical preparations and maintaining a precise crossing system, allowing unorganized mass displacement of Palestinians will be the worst possible outcome. But if this happens, what can be done?
The Saudi factor
Normally, Egypt holds significant weight in mediating between Israel and the Palestinian resistance due to its previous success in containing situations and exerting pressure on various parties. Typically, Egypt can pressure Israel and various international parties to prevent the situation in Gaza from deteriorating to this extent.
But that isn’t the case at present.
Egypt is under intense pressure from the Israeli government and its allies in the United States and Europe.
According to sources, Egypt is under intense pressure from the Israeli government and its allies in the United States and Europe, who blame it for not using its influence to prevent Hamas from escalating.
According to sources, the growing sense of weakness in Egypt’s regional role and the decline of its historical influence in mediating the Palestinian issue, one of the most contentious issues in the region, is magnified by regional powers’ rush to take on this role. The latest manifestation of Egypt’s diminishment was evident in talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel to conclude normalization under American auspices, which had been slowly building in recent months before the events of the last week transpired.
An Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr weeks ago said that Cairo was not comfortable with the Saudi-Israeli talks. And prior to Saudi Arabia’s public move toward Israel, there was the UAE, which signed the Abraham Accords with Israel three years ago. The two Gulf powers also moved to reconcile relations with Qatar, Turkey and Iran, each according to their own agenda. Egypt was not briefed on any of these moves. And while it might want greater inclusion in certain regional issues, from Iran to Qatar, when it comes to Palestine, Egypt sees a direct threat to its position as the proxy through which other Arab countries interact with Israel, a position it has held since it became the first Arab country to normalize relations with Israel in the late 1970s and for which it has gained strategic American support.
At this moment, according to three high-level government sources, the feeling of this weakness is evident in the volume and nature of the communication that Egypt has engaged in during the past few days. For example, the sources indicate that the US administration has not communicated with the presidency or the General Intelligence Service, the institutions that usually manage Palestinian affairs and communication with Israel, meaningUS-Egypt communication so far is only at the diplomatic level.
In contrast, various Gulf powers, especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are trying to play a role in reducing escalation between Israel and Hamas or in working toward an understanding that can move toward the release of the at least 150 prisoners Hamas took during its Saturday operation.
The emergence of a Gulf role in the Palestinian issue coincides with a cautious Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement in recent weeks, the most prominent manifestations of which were a meeting between Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, last month. This rapprochement culminated in a call Shoukry received from Amir-Abdollahian to discuss developments on Tuesday.
An Egyptian aid convoy destined for Gaza
Sayed Hassan/dpa via ZUMA
An Egyptian diplomatic source who spoke to Mada Masr at the time of the meeting between the two lead diplomats indicated that there is movement toward developing Egyptian-Iranian relations, but he added that Cairo is “waiting for some matters” to be resolved and that “no date has been set yet.” One of these matters is the impact that the Egyptian-Iranian rapprochement might have on Egyptian-Saudi relations as well as Egyptian-American relations, which have been tense since the scandal that has engulfed U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, who was indicted and faces accusations of accepting bribes to support Egypt, according to the diplomat.
However, unlike Iran, which can overtly and covertly support armed Palestinian factions, Egypt faces a more complicated position that “carries a high political toll and security consequences,” according to three government sources.
Egypt’s weak position may lead Israel, with U.S. support, to propose a plan to resettle Palestinians in Sinai
The diplomatic, security and potential humanitarian fallout are all happening against the backdrop of a delicate political and economic situation in Egypt. In less than two months, Egypt will hold new presidential elections, in which Sisi is running amid significant public anger due to unprecedented inflation and a debt crisis that Egypt has not experienced before.
This raises questions about Egypt’s ability to withstand pressure. The three sources indicate that Egyptian sovereign agencies fear that Egypt’s weak position may lead Israel, with American support, to propose a plan to resettle Palestinians in Sinai, a matter that Egypt has repeatedly rejected over the past two decades, especially if this proposal is linked to incentives such as writing off a large portion of its debts or any other economic incentives.
According to the sources, there are concerns that the Egyptian administration sees this as a potential reprise of the 1991 Gulf War model, when late President Hosni Mubarak agreed to military intervention in exchange for dropping a significant portion of Egypt’s debts, especially if Gulf countries join these demands and exert pressure on Egypt. The difference this time is that sovereign agencies and public opinion in Egypt stand against this proposal, according to the sources.
Egypt has an increasingly smaller space to maneuver in the face of all of this pressure. With a ground invasion of Gaza all but certain, Egypt will have to make very difficult decisions in the coming days as the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe becomes clear.
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