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Egypt caught between rock and hard place as Israel escalates attacks on Rafah 

Egypt caught between rock and hard place as Israel escalates attacks on Rafah 
Following the Israeli army’s ground incursions into neighbourhoods east of Rafah, Palestinians residing in the area continue to migrate from the eastern neighbourhoods of the city towards the west of Khan Yunis. 9 May 2024. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Israel’s long-feared attack on Rafah in southern Gaza has put Cairo on the spot. 

Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza — including the recent escalation with attacks on the southern city of Rafah — continues to reverberate across the region and the world.

It is straining the hitherto rock-solid friendship between Israel and the United States (US) and could cost President Joe Biden the White House later this year as young Democrats increasingly protest against his continued support for Israel. This support has weakened the US’s international standing relative to its global adversaries, Russia and China, in the eyes of many in the global south.

Egypt has found itself in a particularly awkward position. As Gaza’s only neighbour besides Israel, it’s feeling the repercussions of the war more than most. This has come to the fore with Israel’s attack this month on Rafah. The Rafah Crossing to Egypt is Gaza’s only exit other than to Israel.

Egypt and Israel have a longstanding and pragmatic cooperation on security issues, particularly over Gaza. Before this war, Egypt maintained tight control over movements through Rafah as a result of the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Cairo was particularly concerned about a possible flow of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai — partly from fears of a possible jihadist insurgency revival in the Sinai. But also because a mass exodus from Gaza would facilitate what Egypt suspected was Israel’s intention to depopulate Gaza of Palestinians and destroy hopes of a Palestinian state.

The Rafah attack is exacerbating these fears and straining security arrangements with Israel, mainly because it’s increasing the likelihood that many thousands of Palestinians — who have nowhere else safe to go — will move into Egypt.

Egypt is also incensed by Israel now controlling the Gaza side of the Rafah Crossing, according to Chatham House. “To mitigate this scenario, Egypt is adopting what officials in Cairo call a ‘containment strategy’,’ it says. “This includes ratcheting up international pressure on Israel by conditioning the reopening of the Rafah Crossing (the main conduit for humanitarian aid into Gaza) on the [Israel Defense Forces’] withdrawal from the area and returning control over the crossing to Palestinians.”

Humanitarian aid, traffic complications

Egypt and Israel have begun trading tit-for-tat accusations over Rafah. Most of the international community has long accused Israel of besieging Gaza and severely restricting the inflow of humanitarian aid. But now Israel seems to be taking advantage of Egypt’s restrictions on the Rafah Crossing by saying Cairo could if it chose, allow aid to pass through.

Cairo retorts that it is Israel’s military activity on the border that is preventing humanitarian traffic. Israel replies that its presence is necessary to prevent Hamas from hijacking the aid. Egypt has also accused Israel of being responsible for the impasse in the internationally brokered peace talks with Hamas in Cairo earlier this month.

In an explicit expression of growing tensions, Cairo announced on Sunday that it intended to formally intervene in support of the case of genocide that South Africa has brought against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

A statement by Egypt’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said, “Israeli atrocities … including direct targeting of civilians, the destruction of infrastructure in the Strip, and pushing Palestinians towards fleeing and displacing them outside their territories … has led to the creation of an unprecedented human crisis that caused unliveable conditions in the Gaza Strip” in violation of the Geneva Convention (IV) of 1949. Egypt called for a ceasefire, an end to military operations in Rafah, and necessary protection for Palestinian civilians.

Cairo joins The Maldives, Turkey, Ireland, and Belgium in declaring its intention to support South Africa’s ICJ case. Libya, Colombia and Nicaragua have gone further by formally applying to intervene on South Africa’s side. So far, no countries have taken steps to intervene on Israel’s side, though Germany announced in January that it intended to.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

By supporting South Africa’s case, Egypt is also piggybacking Pretoria’s concordant understanding of what is happening around Rafah. In its latest initiative in the case, Pretoria asked the ICJ on 11 May to order Israel to take further urgent provisional measures to prevent more harm to Gaza’s citizens. This is South Africa’s fourth approach to the court requesting provisional measures.

In January, South Africa persuaded the ICJ to order Israel to prevent genocide in Gaza and increase humanitarian aid to the territory. The request to order Israel to suspend its military operations in Gaza was declined.

In its latest request, South Africa said Israel’s recent assault on Rafah had created a risk to the survival of the Palestinians in Gaza and to the supply of humanitarian aid. This was because Rafah was “now effectively the last refuge in Gaza for 1.5 million Palestinians from Rafah and those displaced by Israeli action”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: World’s gaze to return to Peace Palace as ICJ hears arguments by SA and Israel on Rafah

And by seizing control of the Rafah and Kerem Shalom (Karem Abu Salem) crossings in the south, Israel was now in direct, total control of all entry and exit to Gaza, and had “cut it off from all humanitarian and medical supplies, goods and fuel on which the survival of the population of Gaza depends, and is preventing medical evacuations”.

In light of this changed situation, South Africa, in its oral arguments on 16 May, asked the ICJ to order Israel to specifically stop its assault on Rafah and cease fire throughout Gaza in light of new Israeli assaults to the north. The fact that Rafah is the last refuge for Palestinians, and that Israel has largely ignored the court’s previous orders, might persuade the judges to order a ceasefire.

Though relations between Egypt and Israel are apparently more strained than they have been in decades, observers don’t believe they are at breaking point yet. Africa Confidential, for example, notes that Egypt has become quite dependent on Israeli gas, particularly at a time when its economy is vulnerable. Yemeni Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping have reduced its Suez Canal earnings by at least half a billion dollars.

Conversely, Israel needs all the regional allies it can get, even difficult ones, at a time when its Gaza assault has alienated so many people around the globe. DM

Peter Fabricius, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Consultant.

First published by ISS Today.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David Jacobson says:

    Whatever the ICJ rules, it has no power or capacity to enforce its ruling …. Until the hostages are returned, the war continues !! Um Israel chai !!

    • Luke S says:

      What a sad and terribly inhumane world we live in, where people actively support war. War. Where there are many options that will stop it, but only one solution is seen – kill thousands to save a few dozen. What guarantees have the Israeli government given that the war will stop if the hostages are returned? What guarantees have the Israeli government given to solve the root problem – Palestinian freedom in their homeland?

  • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

    Egypt has deflected throughout the conflict, and since Oct 7 has shut, and refused to open its crossing with Gaza (pop quiz – did anyone even know that Gaza has a crossing with Egypt?). No humanitarian aid flow allowed into Gaza from Egypt. No Palestinian refugees from Gaza allowed into Egypt. Could it be that Egypt is source of Palestinian pressure? Next fun fact – Egypt is 46 times larger than Israel in land mass – therefore could easily absorb all its Palestinian brethren / co-religionists (that’s for you Luke)

    • Mohsin Wadee says:

      Why should Palestinians be forcibly removed from Gaza? So if Egypt accepts them then you concede Israel is ethnically cleansing Palestinians from Gaza? You admit that?

      • Mordechai Yitzchak says:

        Its either an “open air prison” that you want to be free from, or you want to wipe Jews from the face of the earth from the river to the sea? Choose Mohsin

      • David Jeannot says:

        The point made by Mordechai has substance and is important, it is too easily glossed over in the media that Egypt shares a border with the Gaza strip. A cringing example of this was Jane Dutton’s attempt at ignoring this fact when pressed on it by Douglas Murray in an interview while in South Africa. The Egyptians have maintained a blockade on the strip that is arguably more draconian than Israel’s before the massacre of October 7th. Israel allowed thousands of Palestinians to enter their country on work permits and provided critical healthcare to those who needed it in Israeli hospitals. Now that Hamas provoked a war with Israel, there are consequences to that. The IDF would not be in Gaza if Hamas hadn’t taken hostages and attacked them. Notably, in Ukraine many civilians were able to enter Poland who took them in willingly as refugees. Egypt has done the opposite and reinforced their border with more walls and tanks…

        • Troy Marshall says:

          Egypt opens a border, facilitates a large scale land grab by Israel? The problem is trust. Israel has been taking and building settlements on Palestinian land for decades.
          The IDF are in Gaza because of Hamas? That comment doesn’t make sense. How do you maintain a military occupation without a military presence?
          Hamas? What came first? The extremists or the occupation? The occupation is twenty years older than Hamas.

    • Troy Marshall says:

      So Israel gets Palestinian land – the Palestinians get Egyptian land – and that’s okay, because Egypt has lot’s and lot’s of land – Well, land expropriation plans by the EFF don’t seem so hardcore any more!

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