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Who is against Israel’s Rafah operation, and who stands to gain from it?

May 14, 2024 at 1:32 pm

Civil defence teams move to areas where attacks have been reported based on incoming alerts as Israeli attacks continue on Rafah, Gaza on May 12, 2024 [Jehad Alshrafi/Anadolu Agency]

Israel’s military assault on Rafah is ongoing amid US reservations and Egyptian statements. The announced objective of the operation is to eliminate the remaining Palestinian resistance, with no regard for the safety of civilians or violating the occupation state’s peace treaty with Egypt. Despite statements opposing the Israeli operation in the southern Gaza Strip, apparent concerns do little, perhaps due to secret understandings and arrangements.

Unfolding developments raise many questions, especially regarding Egypt, which has been linked to Israel by a peace treaty since 1979, and has other concerns, interests and goals. Israel’s invasion of the Palestinian side of the Rafah Border Crossing and raising of its flag in the compound constitutes a clear violation of the Camp David Agreement, which calls for demilitarised zones on both sides of the Egypt-Israel border. The invasion also violates the Philadelphia Agreement, signed in September 2005 by Israel and Egypt, which gave the Egyptian and Palestinian authorities, along with the European Union, responsibility for running the crossing.

Israel regards the agreement as a security annex to the 1979 peace treaty, and says it is governed by its general principles and provisions. According to this agreement, Israel withdrew from the Philadelphia/Salah Al-Din axis, and handed it over along with the Rafah Crossing to the Palestinian Authority.

The Israeli occupation seeks to achieve victory in Rafah before announcing any truce deal.

It aims to remove control of the crossing from the de facto government in Gaza run by Hamas; to destroy the tunnels in the south of the Gaza Strip; and to dictate a new form of administration at the crossing, before the end of the war, which has entered its eighth month.

Observers believe that the Israeli goals are being implemented with a green light from Egypt, or at least according to secret understandings with Cairo, which shares with Tel Aviv the desire to exclude Hamas from controlling the only crossing in the Gaza Strip that is not run by Israel.

READ: Mortar attack injures 10 Israeli soldiers at Rafah Crossing in southern Gaza

From time to time, the Cairo News Channel, which is close to Egyptian intelligence, reports political positions that appear to be opposed to the Israeli escalation in Rafah as stated by anonymous, high-ranking Egyptian sources. However, what is striking is that it was US and Israeli newspapers which reported that Egyptian officials warned the occupation state of the possibility of suspending the peace treaty if Israel carried out military operations in Rafah. This seemed like an attempt to save face by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime and to show that he opposes the invasion of Rafah.

A few days ago, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry duly condemned the Israeli military operations in the city, calling on the Israelis to stay away from operations which threaten the efforts made to reach a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

The Egyptian reaction is consistent with leaks about the Rafah invasion being coordinated with the US, and after the Egyptians were notified of it. As per these understandings, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to carry out a limited, short-term operation that may take days, to give an illusion of victory that would satisfy his far-right ministers, before agreeing to a ceasefire deal, which Hamas already agreed to last week.

On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry used a joint press conference with his Slovenian counterpart to renew his country’s commitment to the peace treaty with Israel, describing Camp David as a strategic choice for Egypt for the past 45 years, and a main pillar for peace in the region that helps maintain stability. He pointed out that the treaty contains special mechanisms in the event of violations by any party, and that these mechanisms are activated through a technical framework, and through a military liaison committee.

Ongoing discussions about alternatives to managing the Rafah Crossing reinforce the hypothesis of Egyptian complicity with a limited Israeli operation in Rafah, while maintaining the path of mediation in the ongoing negotiations regarding a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

Among the alternatives being discussed is the assignment of a private American security company to manage the crossing after the end of the war, thus preventing Hamas from digging smuggling tunnels toward the Egyptian side of Rafah. This alternative also deprives Hamas of collecting taxes imposed on trucks and goods, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

It is expected, said an Egyptian political expert requesting anonymity, that there will be a role for Egypt in imposing this scenario, in light of post-war understandings.

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Israeli and American reports say that the as yet unidentified company has worked in many countries in Africa and the Middle East, and has experience in guarding strategic sites such as oil fields, airports, army bases and sensitive border crossings. Israel and the United States are expected to assist the company when needed.

Another Egyptian source, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, said that he does not rule out a role for the Sinai Tribal Union and its head, businessman Ibrahim Al-Arjani, in managing the crossing, considering the growing influence of the man, who is close to the Egyptian intelligence agency. He has close ties to the Egyptian president’s son, Mahmoud Al-Sisi, who is the undersecretary of the agency. A few days ago, the Union’s official spokesman, journalist Mustafa Bakri, said that it can be considered a faction affiliated with the armed forces and working for them. This reinforces Egyptian concerns that suspicious roles will be assigned to Al-Arjani and his men.

President Sisi issued a presidential decree in November appointing Al-Arjani as a member of the National Authority for the Development of Sinai. He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Sinai Group of Companies, the Sinai Company for Trading and General Contracting, and Misr Sinai Industrial Development and Investment Company. He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Sinai Foundation for Charity and Economic Development, and Hala Tourism Consultations and Services Company.

In addition to the clear coordination between the Union of Tribes in Sinai and Egyptian intelligence, Al-Arjani has armed, logistical and human capabilities. He also enjoys the technical expertise in managing the crossing, through the Hala company, which has been accused of charging Palestinians thousands of dollars to pass through it.

Estimates reported by Middle East Eye revealed that Hala, which employs former Egyptian army officers, generated no less than $58 million from the crossing business during April alone, and that the company may earn more than half a billion dollars by the end of this year.

Egypt says that amounts collected from the official authorities are only the fees determined by the Land Ports Authority in accordance with Egyptian law regulating the operation of the Rafah Crossing, and they are fixed and have not been increased at all. The Egyptian Information Service insisted that this was the case.

Coinciding with the Israeli operation in Rafah are US activities to establish and finalise the operation of the floating pier off the coast of Gaza, via which humanitarian aid is intended to be put ashore from cargo vessels. UN staff will then unload, organise and distribute the shipments.

This will allow the Israeli government to kill two birds with one stone by providing under its sole control an alternative to the Rafah Crossing, and controlling the passage of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip in the post-war period.

This also allows an offshore American role under the pretext of ensuring that the floating pier remains safe. It also gives Washington the ability to intervene militarily if necessary to support Israel in case it ever faces another attack like 7 October.

The floating pier effectively eliminates the role of the Rafah Crossing, or largely reduces its activity, which means dwarfing the Egyptian role in this issue. It also tightens the siege on the Gaza Strip, in case the resistance dares to launch another attack against the occupation state.

Political researcher Jamal Al-Masry believes that the expansion of the Rafah operation, and its deviation from original understandings and the agreed-upon framework, as part of Israel’s attempts to impose a fait accompli, may explain Egypt’s change of tone, especially after the exaggerated display and broadcast of video clips of tanks and other army vehicles raising the Israeli flag along the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip. Cairo may consider this a violation of the Camp David Accords, a plan to displace Palestinians towards the Egyptian side of Rafah, and an underestimation of Egyptian mediation to reach a ceasefire in Gaza.

Considering these developments, and what the Rafah operation will lead to, it is not unlikely that Cairo’s positions will change, towards escalation and pressure politically and diplomatically, as it announced its intention to support the lawsuit filed by South Africa against Israel in the International Court of Justice. However, it is most likely that Egypt has other aims to gain from the Rafah operation.

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