Forty-Five Years Of Peace Jeopardized By Egyptian Aid To Gaza

Once Israel takes over Rafah, it may find that Egypt has not been forthright about its supposed destruction of tunnels between its territory and Gaza.

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi screengrab

In a dramatic turn of events that jeopardizes 45 years of peace, Egypt is blaming Israel’s recent offensive in Rafah for creating a situation that could dismantle its longstanding, though tenuous, alliance with Israel, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. The Israeli operation to take over parts of Eastern Rafah has precipitated a severe diplomatic rift, with Egypt contemplating a significant reduction in its diplomatic ties with Israel and announcing its intention to join an international lawsuit accusing Israel of genocide. However, underneath the public outrage by Egypt is a fear that the Israeli presence on the Gaza side of the Egyptian border would uncover proof that Egypt has been aiding Hamas' military capabilities.

Historically pivotal as both a military and cultural keystone in the Arab world, Egypt is now on the brink of downgrading relations following Israel’s seizure of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing. This move has effectively stopped the resumption of border operations, essential for the flow of aid and movement of people. Egypt has said they will not allow humanitarian trucks to cross through to Israel's Kerem Shalom crossing, or allow them to cross over the Rafah crossing since Israel took over the Gaza side of the key arteries. Egypt has also said the flow of people from Gaza, a trek that Egypt charges exorbitant fees to Palestinians in Gaza who want to leave, will stop. Since the beginning of the conflict in October 2023, Egypt has refused to allow humanitarian areas to be set up in Sinai, and has blamed Israel for creating a humanitarian crisis which the Muslim State has not acted to help alleviate.

Egypt's bold declaration has puzzled analysts who point out that Hamas has been brutal in their control over the crossings and hijacked the humanitarian aid that has come through them, often hoarding supplies for their militants and selling goods meant to be handed out for free. Videos on social media have documented Hamas' beating and even killing of Palestinians who have tried to take some of the aid. Egyptian truck drivers have complained that their vehicles were being damaged by Palestinians in Gaza, although Egypt has worked to suppress this narrative while not putting measures in place to ensure the humanitarian aid is delivered to the people who need it.

The crisis, described as the worst since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, has eroded trust to near irreparable levels. In the Journal's article, Mohammed Anwar Sadat, echoing his uncle’s legacy as a peacemaker, highlights a prevailing suspicion and disillusionment clouding the bilateral relations. However, this could not be further from the truth. Egypt's relationship with Israel was always duplicitous. Despite the relations between the two nations, Egypt has been a vocal critic of Israel. Many attributed this to Egypt's need to satiate their large Islamist population aligned with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that is the ideological parent of Hamas. Egypt ruled the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization after a 2013 coup which unseated Muhammad Morsi, who was the leader of the Brotherhood's political arm.

The current standoff escalated when Israel, deviating from months of negotiations with Egypt, launched an offensive it warned Hamas just a week earlier that it would undertake if no movement was made on ceasefire negotiations. The offensive resulted in Israel taking control of the Gazan side of the Rafah border. This action, that Israel did inform Egypt of hours before its execution, irritated Egypt which claimed that it contradicted prior assurances Israel had given, including promises of non-interference at the crossing and safe evacuation for Palestinians, something Egypt was only allowing to emergency cases via ambulances and to those who could pay the significant fees. It has been speculated that ambulances have been used to move militants out and weapons in, and some in Israel have feared that hostages were smuggled out via using those means.

Yesterday, in a press conference with the Greek Prime Minister, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan admitted that thousands of Hamas fighters had been treated in Turkish hospitals since the start of the war. The admission itself served to undermine Egypt's claim that no Hamas fighters have crossed through their borders since fighting began, and raised fears in Israel that if Hamas fighters were being brought across the Gaza Egypt border and being taken out of the region, Israeli hostages could have also been taken out and brought to other countries. Incidentally, in his meeting with his Greek counterpart in Ankara, Erdoğan also expressed sadness that Greece classifies Hamas as a terror group.  As part of the European Union, Greece, along with Argentina, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, Paraguay, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization 

Sources are speculating that Egypt's anger has less to do with the short notice Israel provided and more to do with their fear that Israel will discover tunnels they had claimed did not exist. Egypt claimed they flooded all the cross border tunnels leading into the Sinai from Gaza, however it has always been suspected, given the weapons and explosives that Hamas possessed that tunnels existed and that Egyptian officials were being paid large sums to look the other way.  Given the historical connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt, it is also thought that many in the current government are not just in it for the money, but ideologically are opposed to Israel as a sovereign state. The aggressive tone by Egypt is seen as trying to preempt Israel's discovery of much that would confirm how complicit Egypt has been in sustaining and even building Hamas' military capabilities which would be an embarrassment to Egypt. 

Israel’s strategic silence post-operation and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public justification of the move as a measure against Hamas’ smuggling activities add layers to the already complex geopolitical puzzle. Despite past collaborations against regional threats like the Islamic State, and shared intelligence, the Rafah operation has strained the relationship to a breaking point and it is likely that what Israel will uncover in Rafah is a significant factor in Egypt's public anger with Israel.

Egypt’s pivotal role as a mediator in securing a ceasefire and its dependency on U.S. aid tied to the peace treaty further complicate its position. Meanwhile, the Biden administration faces its own set of challenges, as it reevaluates military aid to Israel amidst international outcry over the escalating conflict. 

The operation has not only displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians but also jeopardized the only operational entry point into Gaza not controlled by Israel, further isolating the territory. Egypt’s outright refusal to cooperate at the Rafah crossing underscores the gravity of the situation and bolster's the claims that Egypt is less interested in helping the Palestinian population and more interested in preventing Israel from not just uncovering, but destroying the smuggling infrastructure. Egypt had been asked during the conflict to establish a humanitarian zone in Sinai to allow Palestinian civilians in Gaza to temporarily relocate as Israel works to dismantle Hamas, but it has refused and insisted that it would pose a danger to Egypt, with some officials saying there would be no way to know if the civilians were militants. However, the revelation by Erdoğan yesterday about the Hamas fighters in Turkish hospitals have undermined that claim.

In a significant move, Egypt has also expressed its intent to withdraw its ambassador from Israel, signaling a potential diplomatic downgrade. While not severing ties completely, this step represents a critical stance against Israel’s actions, which Egypt claims is a blatant disregard for its national interests and only serves to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.  Egypt relies heavily on Israel and the peace that exists between the two countries has had a significant benefit to Egypt economically and militarily. While there are benefits that Israel has derived from the peace, it is believed that any downgrade in relations would impact Egypt more profoundly.

The unfolding events mark a precarious moment in Middle Eastern politics, threatening to shift the regional dynamics and challenge the enduring peace established by the Camp David Accords.

Jay Englemayer writes for The Judean.

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Egypt Swords of Iron Israel Islam Geopolitics