Egypt Stalls for Time and Refuses to Reconsider its Relations with Israel

Since 7 October 2023, Egypt has been spectacularly silent about events in Gaza. Not only have the public turnout and the media coverage been feeble, but Cairo seems to bow down to Israel’s dictates concerning the entries and exits to Gaza of persons and humanitarian aid via Rafah. Although a major military operation seems in the offing at the Southern end of the strip, there seems little chance of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime taking any action in response.

Displaced Palestinians talk to Egyptian soldiers at the border fence between Gaza and Egypt, 16 February 2024 in Rafah
Mohamed Abed/AFP

Although this war launched by Israel against the Gaza Strip is its most violent action since its 2005 withdrawal, Egypt – the only country bordering on the Palestinian enclave – has remained soft-spoken in its declarations except when it was suggested that Palestinians be removed to the Sinai.

This change has been observed in unofficial circles as the launching of a land operation against Rafah and the occupation of the Salah Al-Din corridor – or Philadelphy corridor – seem immanent.1

Since Israel’s bombings of the Gaza Strip began, Egypt has maintained the position it has held consistently throughout the ten years of President Al-Sisi’s rule. Thus, the border crossings on the Egyptian side are closed to persons and humanitarian aid. This was disclosed by US President Joe Biden, when he claimed that his phone conversation with Sisi had led to the opening of these crossing points, a result which the Egyptian president had been quick to deny. In fact, the humanitarian aid authorised by Israel remains extremely limited. It is not nearly enough to end the famine spreading through the Gaza Strip, nor to ensure the basic medical services for the sick and injured or bring succour to the displaced persons.

A ‘neutral facilitator’

Many Palestinians tell of the astronomical sums demanded by a company thought to be a front for the Egyptian security apparatus to allow Palestinians to cross the border and escape the horrendous bombings. These are said to amount to some 9,000 dollars, but such accusations have been refuted by Dia’ Rachwan, the head of the State Information Service.

During President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, several thousand of us worked to provide help each time Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, arranging to have the wounded cared for in Cairo hospitals or elsewhere, enabling friends and relatives to visit them without restriction. Despite the criticisms aimed at Mubarak for his regime’s relations with the Palestinians, the decision to open the border crossing at Rafa was an Egyptian decision, Israel had nothing to do with it. General Naser Salem, former head of the Armed Forces Reconnaissance Service provides an explanation for this change of attitude: ‘The United States provides an international political cover for Israel, which prevents any country from attacking it,’ and he illustrates this by pointing to the US raids on Iraq and Yemen. Thus, he believes that:

Egypt plays the role of a neutral facilitator, because if it takes sides, Israel will prevent the humanitarian aid from entering Gaza or will reject Egypt’s mediation. The loss will thus be greater for the Palestinians than for Egypt. This is why Cairo agrees not to do more, because the alternative would be war, in other words, going up against the US and NATO.

For him, Egypt is like ‘a man holding water in his had: if he clenches his fist, he loses it all’.

The weight of the Camp David accords

Egypt has made clear by the voice of its Foreign Ministry spokesperson that its relations with Israel are strained just now on account of the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed and wounded since the start of the Israeli offensive. And because of Tel Aviv’s intention to attack Rafah where a million and a half-displaced persons are crowded together. These could find themselves trapped between the Israeli army and the Sinai, obliging them to climb the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

Another aspect of the dispute between Israel and Egypt is the former’s threat to occupy the Philadelphi corridor which extends for 13.5 kilometres between Kerem Abu Salem and the Mediterranean. In compliance with the Camp David agreement of 1979, this area may accommodate only light weaponry. Any large-scale military operation there would therefore constitute a violation of that peace treaty and would necessarily lead to an Egyptian response.

Foreign Minister Sameh Choukri was the first to react officially in this matter during a press conference with his Slovenian counterpart, Tanja Fajon on 12 February 2024. Questioned about the possibility of Egypt suspending its peace treaty with Israel – as some media have recently suggested – he declared:

There is a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, which has been in effect for the past 40 years and will continue to be. It is by virtue of this agreement that relations between the two countries have been established. Our country will always keep its commitments so long as they are observed by both parties. Therefore, I will rule out any comments that have been made on this matter.

However, he went on to add:

‘Israel’s policies on the ground are tending towards a displacement scenario. We maintain our total rejection of any manoeuvres aimed at forcing the Palestinians off their territory. Any attempt to implement a forced displacement and liquidate the Palestinian cause would be illegal and is unacceptable.’

As for General Ahmed Al-Awdi, Chairman of the Commission for Defence and National Security in the Egyptian Parliament, he declared that the attack on Rafah would merely lead to the suspension of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty without any other reaction from Cairo, adding that Parliament would ratify this suspension if it were consulted.

Israel ‘is exporting its problems’

Regarding this possibility, a one-rime Foreign Ministry official had this to say: ‘International law does not provide for anything called the suspension of a treaty. Such an agreement is either valid or annulled. However, Israel might agree to temporarily freeze the treaty before “unfreezing” it.’

In legal terms, Ambassador Masoom Marzouk, former deputy minister for foreign affairs in charge of international judicial questions, bears this out:

An Israeli military intervention on the Philadelphi corridor would be an infringement of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. In Zone D as well as all the divided zones, both parties have the same obligations. If the balance is broken because one party fails to respect its obligations, this gives the other party the right to walk away from all its commitments.

As for General Naser Salem, he tends to play down the importance of an Israeli presence in the Philadelphi Corridor, so long as the zone is not located within Egypt’s borders. Nonetheless, he does feel that driving the Palestinians into Egypt would be crossing a ‘red line’ and attacking Rafah would lead to a ‘massacre’. He also claims that Egypt will provide aid, but that:

The first responsibility is Israel’s, for it is an occupying power. We will not keep silent if Israel exports its problem to us. Especially since if it displaces the Palestinians, they won’t return to their land. Egypt will prevent such a displacement by strengthening the wall of separation and deploying more forces on that location.

As for Dia’ Rachwan, he declared on Egyptian TV that Egypt ‘has the means to defend itself’. He guaranteed that the country ‘will not be content to recall its ambassador if there is a threat to national security or a plan to eradicate the Palestinian question’.

Contradictory stances

What we can conclude from official and unofficial declarations is that there exist two different positions: one which is firm, the other diplomatic. A high-placed governmental source who prefers to remain anonymous provides an explanation:

The release of such contradictory messages may be intentional, or it may actually reflect a genuine difference of viewpoints, as can be found anywhere in the world. At the beginning of this war, Emmanuel Macron called for the formation of an international coalition to fight Hamas, today he is calling for a cease-fire. And Itamar Ben Gvir [Israeli Minister of National Security] has made statements contradicting Benyamin Netanyahu.

While it is true that these rhetorical divergences exist in many countries, it is not generally the case under oppressive regimes. Which would mean that we are dealing here with different evaluations in different governmental instances. Unless these are trial balloons, meant to see what kind of reactions they will elicit.

However, we may observe that there exists a minimum common denominator among these different declarations: the refusal to see the Palestinians displaced. Thus, the divergence resides in the nature of Cairo’s reaction if the displacement were to materialise. But as our governmental source assures us: ‘Egypt has plans to respond to any eventuality, which for the moment it will keep to itself.’

The weight of the economy

There remain some doubts, nonetheless. In the opinion of a former foreign affairs official:

Egypt has gas accords as well as economic ones like the QIZ2with Israel allowing our exports to be marketed in the USA. Because certain businessmen have connections with Israel, the decision will not be easy. And yet we must adopt a firm position, including military manoeuvres to safeguard our airspace and flight corridors. Egypt could justify these by referring to the bellicose declarations by Israeli officials demanding the restoration of the Sinai.

Besides which, Israeli newscasters have claimed that Egypt took part in the airlift meant to alleviate the pressure on Israel following the Houthi military operations on the Red Sea blocking ships on their way to the Hebrew State. Indeed, the Israeli company Tracknet announced having concluded a deal with the Egyptian company WWCS, property of Egyptian businessman Hicham Helni, for the purpose of extending the land corridor (which runs from Dubai to Haifa) across Egyptian territory.

Other elements pointed up by Samir Alich, one of the founders of the Civil Democratic Movement,3 tends to confirm the idea that Egypt’s pressures on Israel are not serious.

The Egyptian regime has ties with Israel, evinced by the absence of any reaction to the transfer of Israel’s capital to Jerusalem and the support which Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi displayed for the “deal of the century”. Thus, popular protests must increase to make it react.

Now the regime has ignored all the requests for permission to demonstrate made by the Civil Movement. Aside from its relations with Israel, ‘Egypt’s position can also be explained by the fact that Hamas belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood.’

The shadow of the Muslim Brotherhood

In parallel with all these declarations, Egypt began on Monday morning 12 February the establishment of a buffer zone, extending in the northern limit area between the village of Al-Masuria to the west and a point on the international border line south of the Rafah crossing. The southern boundary of these engineering works is between the village of Jos Abu Raad and a point on the international border line south of the Karm Abu Salem crossing, As reported by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, the work was inaugurated on the Goz Abu Raad zone, south of the city of Rafah, in the presence of military intelligence officers as well as members of armed tribes affiliated with the Forsan Al-Haytham militia4, all brought there by off-road vehicles. The Foundation also reports the presence of many local businessmen, as well as large quantities of tools and bulldozers.

A Sinai specialist explains that this work is aimed at ‘preparing the site before construction is begun in a border zone 5 km deep emptied by the army in 2014, then another 10 km as part of the Global Sinai Operation in 2018. However, the men working there today know nothing of all that; they are levelling the land without knowing why they are doing it.’

Quoting Egyptian security sources, The Wall Street Journal revealed that ‘the zone can receive over 100,000 people. It is surrounded by concrete walls and is located far from any residential area’5 Quoting Egyptian officials, the paper goes on: ‘In the event of a massive exodus of Palestinians from Gaza, Egypt will try to limit the number of refugees to a figure well below the zone’s capacity. i.e. ideally between 50,000 and 60,000.’

This figure refers to a proposition contained in ‘the deal of the century’, which envisioned:

three options for Palestinian refugees seeking a permanent place of residence:
➞ absorption into the State of Palestine (subject to the limitations provided below) ;
➞ local integration in current host countries (subject to those countries consent);
➞ or the acceptance of 5,000 refugees each year, for up to ten years (50,000 total refugees), in individual Organization of Islamic Cooperation member countries who agree to participate in Palestinian refugee resettlement (subject to those individual countries’ agreement).

Egypt would be prompted to receive that many refugees thanks to financial aid amounting to 9.1 billion US dollars.

Despite official Egyptian denials, the Sisi regime is no doubt inclined to defer to Israeli demands. No Egyptian president has displayed such a degree of complicity with Israel and such hostility towards the Palestinian factions as has been shown by Sisi during the past decade. The Egyptian stance regarding Israeli restrictions on the evacuation of the wounded and the admission of humanitarian aid should suffice to make clear the Sisi regime’s bias. Indeed, Benny Gantz, currently minister without portfolio in the Netanyahu cabinet, considers the regime a full-fledged partner in the discussions preceding the planned military operation against Rafah aimed at transferring the Palestinians “to protected locations”.

Following Sisi’s coup in the summer of 2013, his proximity with Israel became quickly apparent when an Israeli drone attacked Northern Sinai on 9 August 2013, killing five people, claimed to be jihadists. In September 2013, the then Egyptian Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmi, threatened a military intervention in the Gaza Strip “if we feel that certain members of Hamas or other parties are trying to undermine Egyptian national security.” On the other hand, no similarly aggressive declarations were forthcoming in response to Israel’s violations. Besides which, President Mohamed Morsi – ousted by Sisi’s coup – had been accused of collaborating with Hamas. This movement’s activities were banned in Egypt on 4 March 2014 and was listed as a “terrorist organisation” in January 2015. The “terrorist” qualification was subsequently removed by court order, but the Egyptian citizenship of one of its leaders, Mahmoud Al-Zahar was revoked, along with that of eleven members of his family.

In April 2017, Sisi was at Trump’s side to announce his full support for what he himself dubbed the “deal of the century”, an expression which he invented there and then. Less than three years later the final version of this accord was made public, including the creation of a demilitarised Palestinian State as well as the annexation by Israel of more than a third of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem. The Egyptian Foreign Minister immediately called upon the Israeli and Palestinian parties to study the terms of this accord. It was then that the independent website Mada Masr revealed, quoting official Egyptian sources, that the presidency had removed from the Foreign Minister’s declaration the sentence,’ Palestinian State on the territories occupied in 1967 with East Jerusalem for capital.’

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt, by virtue of the peace treaty between Cairo and Tel Aviv.

2EDITOR’S NOTE: Abreviation for Qualified Industrial Zones. This is a commercial agreement signed in Cairo on 14 December 2004 between Egypt, Israel and the United States allowing for the creation of qualified industrial zones for exporting products to the USA free of customs duties provided each party provides locally made components.

3EDITOR’S NOTE: A political alliance concluded in 2017 between several parties.

4A militia affiliated with the Sinai tribal union and headed by businessman Ibrahim Al-Atjani.

5Egypt Builds Walled Enclosure on Border as Israeli Offensive Looms,’ Summer Said and Jared Malsin, 15 January 2014.