The importance of the Philadelphi Corridor on the border between Gaza and Egypt has increased recently in light of conflicting statements and scenarios. Open and secret activities are taking place which aim to chart a new reality in this strategic area.
The corridor is 14 kilometres long, and a few hundred metres wide, and the Rafah Border Crossing is built on it. It is subject to the terms of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. The treaty stipulated the establishment of a buffer zone along the border between the two sides, when Gaza was occupied in every sense by the apartheid state.
With Israel’s military offensive against the Palestinians in Gaza continuing into its fourth month, the corridor’s importance is increasing both militarily and strategically. Israel sees it as a lifeline for the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian resistance groups.
All of the Philadelphi Corridor, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Kerem Shalom crossing in the east, was under Israel’s control before its unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in September 2005. Supervision of the corridor and the Rafah crossing was then transferred to the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, with the presence of observers from the European Union, in what was known as the 2005 Crossings Agreement.
At the same time, the Philadelphi Protocol, a security annex to the Egypt-Israel peace agreement, was signed. The annex stipulates the presence of 750 Egyptian soldiers with light weapons in the area to secure the border and prevent infiltration, smuggling and terrorism, which is what Israel was doing before its physical withdrawal from Gaza. The Egyptian forces are thus policemen protecting the occupation.
However, the political and security situation in Gaza changed radically after the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, took control of the Strip in June 2007, after winning the Palestinian legislative election and putting down a coup attempt by a faction within Fatah backed by Israel and the US. This gave the movement control over the corridor from the Palestinian side, which is what Israel seeks to change in the current offensive. It wants control of all land crossings into the Gaza Strip.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that the Philadelphi Corridor must be under his government’s control and must be closed. “Any other arrangement,” he insists, “will not guarantee the disarmament [of the Palestinians in Gaza] that Israel seeks.”
The Israeli position raises legal and political problems between Cairo and Tel Aviv, as the latter wants measures on the ground that strengthen the siege imposed on Hamas in particular, and tighten the noose around the resistance in Gaza in general. The occupation state wants to dry up Hamas’s supplies and prevent the construction of tunnels under the corridor. Tel Aviv believes that the corridor is a dangerous loophole that has to be closed.
The Israeli government is considering the building of an anti-tunnel barrier on the Egyptian side, with American funding, provided that it includes sensors and advanced technology to detect excavations, according to Yedioth Ahronoth. Plans include installing sensors along the Philadelphi Corridor and granting Israel the right to use drones to monitor potential attempts to rebuild tunnels or smuggle weapons. Egypt has reservations about this at the moment.
Israel sent a security delegation to Cairo a few days ago to discuss the matter, and actually aspires to more than that. It wants to participate in running the corridor and deploy Israeli forces on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, under the pretext of destroying the tunnels and separating the Gaza Strip from the Sinai Peninsula.
Cairo thus faces a legal, political and strategic predicament. The first relates to the necessity of changing the legal status of the Philadelphia Corridor and amending the protocol annexed to the peace agreement, which was approved in 2005 after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Abandoning the corridor may mean that Egypt would completely abandon the Gaza Strip
Politically, abandoning the corridor may mean that Egypt would completely abandon the Gaza Strip, losing the Rafah crossing card, which gives Cairo great importance and influence in Palestinian affairs. Moreover, it would confirm the allegations that Egypt participates in the Israeli siege imposed on the Palestinian people in Gaza.
Strategically, no one can ignore the strategic depth that Gaza represents as a pillar of Egyptian national security, and that Israeli infringement on the corridor represents an infringement on Egyptian sovereignty. This could have serious security repercussions, perhaps the most dangerous of which is the creation of a new Israeli presence along the border between Gaza and Egypt.
The Israeli delegation sought to dispel such fears and reach new understandings that included reviewing security procedures on the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and intensifying surveillance and patrols along the Philadelphia Corridor.
The meeting came after the Al-Auja clashes. The Egyptians said that the clashes were with smugglers, while the Israeli army announced that the clashes, which led to a female soldier being wounded, were with 20 suspects who crossed the Egyptian border. Doubts surround the Egyptian version, and Israeli leaks suggest that there were targets other than smugglers.
Observers expect that the pace of security coordination between Egypt and Israel will accelerate to control the situation in the Philadelphia Corridor, impose new security measures, share surveillance data, and perhaps in the future carry out a joint operation to close that loophole, or give Israel control over it. All of this would be in exchange for economic privileges and tempting offers by Tel Aviv and Washington to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime.
This assumption is reinforced by what was revealed by the Hebrew Walla website about tripartite talks between Israel, Egypt and the US to find a security solution regarding the corridor. The talks included the movement of Israeli tanks in that direction from the Kerem Shalom crossing, indicating the possibility of military action there.
In the event of imposing a new reality and tightening Israeli control over the Philadelphia Corridor, Tel Aviv would have succeeded in completely separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt, leaving more than two million Palestinians at the mercy of the occupation authorities by closing Gaza’s only viable window to the rest of the world.
However, Israel’s attempt to control the corridor unilaterally is a clear and direct violation of the peace agreement with Egypt, according to researcher Mohamed Annan. This would require coordination with the Egyptians, or the signing of a protocol annex to the peace agreement, such as the one that was signed in 2005 after the occupation state’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
One Egyptian political analyst, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, said that the Sisi regime’s plans for the Philadelphia Corridor are ambiguous, but there is no disagreement between Egypt and Israel about strangling Hamas and depriving the resistance of tunnels. He added that the future of this region is subject to unannounced intelligence talks and understandings.
Ever since Al-Sisi took power in the 2013 coup and became president a year later, the Egyptian army has carried out extensive operations to destroy all tunnels between Sinai and Gaza and prevent the entry of prohibited materials into the territory. It also evacuated large parts of Egyptian Rafah and El-Arish, and established a buffer border zone in Rafah, extending for about five kilometres into Sinai.
According to a report issued by the Israeli National Security Institute last month, there are several points of Egyptian-Israeli consensus in the post-Operation Al-Aqsa Flood phase. These include the disarmament of Gaza, the weakening of the Hamas movement, the gradual return of the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, and the strengthening of Egyptian control over the Philadelphia Corridor and the border crossings.
There is a lot of Israeli and US pressure on Cairo to push it towards more security coordination to block all routes through which weapons and equipment could get to the resistance groups via the Philadelphia Corridor. Such coordination has been going on for years, but Tel Aviv seeks to strengthen it, while maintaining peace with its ally, and compensating it financially for the embarrassment it will be exposed to internally and externally, in a clear exploitation of the stifling crisis that the Sisi regime is going through.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.