Creating new perspectives since 2009

What are Egypt’s response scenarios to an Israeli attack on Rafah?

February 20, 2024 at 9:40 am

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cario on October 18, 2023 [MICHAEL KAPPELER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images]

The possibility of an imminent Israeli ground attack on the Palestinian city of Rafah is strong, amid fears of a humanitarian catastrophe that will exacerbate the tragic conditions in the Gaza Strip, in its fifth month under fire. The Israelis are working fast to get the green light from the United States, and perhaps other countries, to launch the attack, under the pretext of liberating prisoners and destroying the Hamas brigades in the south of the Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt.

The Egyptian position on this is still ambiguous. Egypt seems to be oscillating between rejecting the attack or accepting it and bearing the consequences. Perhaps the regime is still waiting for further secret arrangements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel is in the process of developing a dual plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah and crush the remaining Hamas brigades. However, reoccupying the Strip, or specifically controlling the Philadelphi (Salah Al-Din) corridor on the border with Egypt, remains on Tel Aviv’s agenda, under the pretext of destroying tunnels and preventing weapons from reaching the resistance groups.

Netanyahu says that it is not possible to achieve the goals of the war in Gaza while Hamas maintains four of its brigades in Rafah. This means that further bombardments and a ground invasion will be witnessed in the southern Gaza Strip, which is densely populated and home to around 1.4 million Palestinians displaced from the north and middle area. This could lead to a bloody massacre of thousands of civilians and pave the way for an exodus towards Egypt.

The Israel Occupation Forces appear to have finalised a plan for the invasion of Rafah, but senior officers are waiting for Cairo’s approval, tacit or otherwise.

Arrangements have to be made for before and after the operation; the human losses have to be estimated; and the displacement of the people — again — to the centre or north of Gaza Strip until the end of the attack, or towards Egypt, “temporarily”, or until further notice.

“We will deal with Rafah after we talk to Egypt about this matter,” said Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Friday. “We will coordinate this. We have a peace agreement with them, and we will find a place that will not harm the Egyptians. We will coordinate everything and will not harm their interests.”

READ: Premature babies in Gaza at risk of imminent death: UN

Political experts told me that the attack appears, at first glance, to be directed at reducing the ceiling of demands put forward by Hamas at the negotiating table, but it may be a cover for passing a secret displacement agreement, which is being produced in a way that makes Egypt appear as if it is forced to accept a mass influx of Palestinians. There appears to be an Israeli-US-Egyptian agreement on the need to eliminate Hamas and reformulate the government in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday that Egypt has no plan to contain those who may be displaced from Rafah. “We have no intention of providing safe areas for the displaced,” he added, “but if a fait accompli is imposed on us, we will deal with the situation and provide humanitarian support.” This was a clear indication of Egyptian acceptance of the consequences of a ground assault on Rafah, not least because Shukri also attacked Hamas, demanding that its supporters and financiers be held accountable, and claiming that the movement was outside the Palestinian consensus.

Publicly, disagreement revolves around the extent of the Israeli commitment to the provisions of the Camp David Accords signed with Egypt in 1979, and Tel Aviv’s need to bring in air and ground forces and heavy equipment. This is in violation of the accord’s stipulations regarding Area D within which Rafah is located, which determine the number of soldiers present there and the type of weapons that can be deployed.

Area D is located between the Egyptian-Israeli border line and Line D, which extends from east of Rafah to Eilat. The annex to the peace treaty allows Israel to place a limited force in this area of four infantry battalions, not equipped with tanks or artillery, only surface-to-air missiles. The total number of Israeli soldiers in the four battalions should not exceed 4,000 along with 180 vehicles.

What is striking is that Egypt’s refusal to let Israel send troops to Rafah, occupying the Philadelphi corridor and threatening to suspend the peace agreement, was issued by the Egyptian Information Service, a media agency affiliated with the presidency. Immediately after this, though, Shukri rushed to confirm that there is a peace agreement between his country and Israel and that it has been valid for the past 40 years, and will continue to be, regardless of any comments made on this matter.

READ: Israel says warplanes struck 29,000 targets in Gaza

Considering this, it is likely that understandings and high-level coordination will be made. They will cover the scale of the military presence, the period that the Israeli forces will be deployed in Rafah, the type of weapons used, the exchange of information, the intensification of surveillance patrols, and other details regarding the conduct of the operation, which is intended to be completed before the advent of the month of Ramadan.

These understandings may allow the Egyptian side flexibility in condemning the Israeli attack, perhaps reducing diplomatic representation, and taking practical steps that clear Cairo’s image and show that President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime rejects such an attack.

This theory is based on a historical precedent that took place some time ago, when the Sisi regime allowed Israeli aircraft to carry out more than 100 air strikes over the course of two years, against ISIS/Daesh in the Sinai Peninsula, in agreement with the Egyptian authorities, according to a New York Times report published in February 2018.

Proposed plans include evacuating Rafah, opening safe corridors, setting electronic gates to examine displaced people in the south and transporting them to the north, establishing camps on the Gaza coast, and then carrying out a ground military operation in Rafah. Egypt would provide health care and aid by sea, the Washington Post has reported.

The Egyptian border with Gaza is just 14 kilometres long, and has recently witnessed military and security activities including around 40 tanks and armoured personnel carriers in Rafah, military helicopters, engineering teams paving the buffer zone, and the building of security squares surrounded by walls inside Egyptian Rafah. The population of Rafah on the Egyptian side of the border was displaced years ago and the area is now ready to receive waves of displaced Palestinians, provided that it is a closed security zone inside Sinai.

READ: Brazil recalls Ambassador to Israel in row over Lula’s Gaza comments

UK-based Sinai Human Rights Foundation confirms that construction work is currently underway at a rapid pace to create an isolated security zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, under the supervision of the Egyptian Army Engineering Authority. This was later confirmed by Reuters, citing four Egyptian sources, who reported that Egypt has begun preparing an area to house Palestinian refugees. The news of this was backed up by satellite images showing that the Egyptian authorities were building a wall and levelling land near the border with the Gaza Strip, said Associated Press.

Palestinian Rafah is home to one of the strongest divisions of the Hamas military wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, which maintains its full combat readiness with 10,000 fighters. Other resistance factions also have a military presence there along with military infrastructure that has not been damaged, unlike the north and middle areas of the Gaza Strip.

Observers believe that the goal of the Rafah operation is to occupy the Philadelphi corridor, which Israel considers to be the military supply artery to the Gaza Strip and the secret behind Hamas’ steadfastness since October. According to intelligence estimates, the corridor is the centre of weapons smuggling tunnels, and perhaps Al-Qassam’s operational headquarters.

One Egyptian political expert, who requested anonymity, believes that what is more dangerous is that the Rafah operation may put the resistance between Israel on one side and Egypt on the other. The Egyptian regime does not tolerate Hamas, and just a few days ago the US president held Al-Sisi responsible for not opening the Rafah border crossing to allow the entry of humanitarian aid.

Those who are pessimistic about the potential attack express concerns that Cairo may provide intelligence information and logistical services that will serve the Israeli side and increase pressure on Hamas, in exchange for financial concessions and US aid. This would put the resistance under great pressure and force it to make concessions during the inevitable negotiation process.

The Egyptians are already worried that ongoing suspicious activities may reveal a scenario in which Israel’s war against the Palestinians in Gaza may expand into Egypt, or this is being promoted as a smokescreen. Meanwhile, the truth is that there is a secret agreement for temporary, or even permanent displacement, that is being orchestrated in such a way that Egypt is made to look as if it has been forced to open the borders to displaced Palestinians.

OPINION: Netanyahu knows that in the US, what Israel wants, Israel gets

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.