Egypt faces difficult decisions following Israeli takeover of Gaza’s southern border

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel late last year announced plans to occupy a sensitive corridor of land in the Gaza Strip, along the border with Egypt, Cairo’s response was public, explicit and sinister.

“It must be strictly emphasized that any Israeli move in this direction will lead to a serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations,” the Egyptian government said in an English-language statement in January, weeks after Netanyahu announced plans to occupy the territory. called Philadelphia Corridor. Egypt said an Israeli military presence there would violate the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

This week, the Israeli military announced that it had taken “tactical control” of the corridor. However, even as the Egyptian government faces internal pressure to take a tougher stance toward Israel following its military offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, there has been no Egyptian public comment on the takeover of the corridor. .

The silence may be a reflection of the dilemma Egypt finds itself in after almost eight months of war in Gaza.

Egypt and Israel view their relationship as a cornerstone of their national security, according to former Israeli and Egyptian officials, making it unlikely that the Egyptian government will take substantial action against Israel. Peace between Egypt and Israel has been an anchor of stability in the Middle East for 45 years.

Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat, said in an interview Thursday that Egypt has stuck to the doctrine of keeping the relationship with Israel stable and protecting it “from the inevitable crises arising from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“Egypt has been consistent in trying to protect this relationship and minimize the impact of the conflict,” Fishere said.

Egypt’s economy, fragile even before the war, has been hit by a collapse in traffic through the Suez Canal, losing billions of dollars in revenue due to ships diverted by Houthi attacks on or near of the Red Sea.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is alarmed by the prospect of Gaza refugees crossing his border, sensitive to outrage in Egypt and across the Arab world over Israel’s bloody campaign in Gaza, and wary of the influence of Islamist groups such as Hamas. Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that el-Sisi ousted from power in a 2013 coup.

While expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Egypt’s government has also cracked down on dissent in its country. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, 120 people have been detained in the context of the pro-Palestinian protests in the country, of whom around 30 were eventually released.

The Israeli military has said it advanced toward the border area in an attempt to obstruct Hamas’s ability to smuggle ammunition into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Egypt has strongly rejected that claim, saying that over the past decade it has destroyed 1,500 tunnels and fortified the wall between Gaza and Egypt.

Israel’s entry into the corridor this week was part of the Israeli offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which has caused more than a million Palestinians, most of them already displaced from their homes, to flee. the city, according to the United Nations.

Israel and Egypt, former enemies who fought several wars between 1948 and 1973, have clashed diplomatically over the Israeli campaign in Gaza, particularly the Israeli offensive in Rafah. But Egyptian and Israeli authorities now coordinate closely on security, with defense officials meeting regularly in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

“The security people will continue to talk to the security people,” Fishere said. “The border will be managed jointly and communication continues. “Both parties know that it is in their interest.”

Still, those ties are now under considerable strain.

In early May, Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing, a vital portal for food and other goods, and has been closed since. Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian officials have argued over who is to blame for the closure and how to resume operations there.

Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, reported late Thursday that Israel and Egypt had agreed in principle to reopen the crossing, but the most fundamental question, who would operate it on the Gaza side, remained unanswered. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

Additionally, analysts say the prospect of Israeli forces carrying out intense military operations so close to Egyptian soil has worried Egyptian and Israeli officials, who prefer to keep their armies as separate as possible.

On Monday, at least one Egyptian soldier was killed in a shootout with Israeli forces near the Rafah crossing, the kind of clash that could inflame public opinion. Both sides say they are investigating the incident, and Egypt’s government and its tightly controlled new media have downplayed it.

Egyptian officials have also warned for months against Israel’s military offensive in Rafah, saying it could be catastrophic for civilians in Gaza.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador in Cairo, said one of Egypt’s main concerns was that Israeli operations could cause Gazans to cross the border en masse. As long as that prospect remains distant, any discontent that Israel’s operation in the Philadelphia Corridor raises in Egypt can probably be managed, Shaked said.

“Both Israel and Egypt understand their true interests,” he added. “There is tension, disappointment and frustrations on both sides, but they are trying to keep them under the table.”

Israeli military officials have generally avoided appearing to accuse Egypt of failing to crack down on cross-border smuggling, which some analysts called an attempt to avoid damaging sensitive and important ties between the two countries.

On Wednesday night, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, refused to explicitly confirm that Israeli forces had discovered cross-border tunnels in the corridor. But an Israeli military official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity to comply with military protocol, said troops had identified at least 20 tunnels leading from Gaza toward Egypt.

One of the networks of tunnels in the area, whose entrance was 100 meters from the Rafah crossing, extended almost a mile underground, including a room intended as a hiding place for militants, Admiral Hagari said. Israeli forces demolished the tunnel complex with explosives, he added.

The Israeli military official said that “tactical control” did not mean that Israeli forces were present at all points along the Philadelphia Corridor. But he said that meant Israel could effectively disrupt Hamas supply lines, which pass through the border area. Israeli troops, he indicated, were working to begin dismantling the tunnel network in the Rafah area.

On Wednesday night, in response to Israel’s announcement about the corridor, Egyptian state news channel Al-Qahera quoted an unnamed senior official as saying there is “no truth” about claims about tunnels under the border. But the official did not directly address Israel’s claim to control the corridor or threaten further diplomatic action.

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