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Egypt and Israel border tension must be calculated and controlled 

June 4, 2024 at 12:00 pm

Two women walk on a road in the middle of a deserted camp for displaced Palestinians on the border with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 22, 2024 [EYAD BABA/AFP via Getty Images]

Ongoing tension between Egypt and Israel over the Rafah border crossing raises serious fears that the situation will deteriorate, especially after the killing of two Egyptian soldiers, and the Israeli army’s announcement of operational control over the Philadelphi (Salah Al-Din) Corridor along the border.

Current developments portend a possible escalation, which may put the security understanding between Cairo and Tel Aviv to a difficult test. There is increasing talk about a possible violation of the Camp David peace treaty, signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, and its security annexes which determine the size and nature of the Israeli military presence in the border zone.

The Philadelphi Corridor between the Gaza Strip and Egypt is 14 kilometres long and 100 metres wide. According to Camp David, it is a buffer zone, but it has become a hot spot of tension that may change the rules of engagement and impose new options on the ground.

The exchange of fire between the two sides last week was nothing new, but the circumstances of the incident are being investigated and raise questions about its repercussions. The Israelis acknowledged responsibility for the killing of Egyptian soldier Abdullah Ramadan, 22, in what was described as a “clash” by Israeli media.

What’s interesting about it is that unofficial media had another story, which was that a second Egyptian soldier, Islam Ibrahim, also 22, was killed as well. These media outlets circulated clips of his funeral. The Egyptian military spokesman’s statement did not include any reference to him, which prompted criticism of the official Egyptian position. It was implied that this was an attempt to contain the situation, and perhaps close the file completely to prevent further escalation.

There was no official Egyptian presence at the funerals of the two soldiers in their home town of Fayoum, and government media didn’t show any footage. Its military censors ensured that Israel’s media had no coverage, under the pretext that it might anger the Egyptians. The intention on both sides was clearly not to escalate the situation, and to let things cool down, according to Yedioth Ahronoth.

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Observers say that it is not in anyone’s interest for this to escalate, and that the security communication and coordination committees are investigating the incident. Certain understandings get activated after such events, and military and intelligence messages are delivered away from the prying eyes of the media. These messages included an Egyptian warning to Israel that it will not hesitate to respond militarily if its security is threatened, or if Israel fires on Egyptian security personnel deployed on the border, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It’s believed that the incident was a one-off, given that the two soldiers were not from the regular army, but were recent graduates serving a period of conscription.

Neither soldier had combat experience.

However, the area is very tense because of what is happening in Rafah on the Palestinian side of the border, which may see others repeat such incidents, until major clashes develop.

Egyptians remember what Mohamed Salah did last year, when the soldier attacked and killed three Israeli soldiers at a guard post near Al-Awja crossing. The possibility is that there may be copycat incidents, given the growing popular sympathy in Egypt for the Palestinians in Gaza, and the high level of dissatisfaction with the regime’s position. The Egyptian opposition is accusing the regime of failing to support the Palestinians by not opening the Rafah Crossing permanently, or expelling the Israeli ambassador.

Egyptian political researcher Mohamed Mostafa told me that the regime’s accommodating position and pursuit of soft diplomacy that does not match the popular mood of the Egyptian people, makes it possible for individual operations to become the alternative. He pointed to several precedents that illustrate his point. A police officer in Alexandria killed two Israeli tourists last October, for example; and a Jewish Israeli businessman was killed in the same city last month. Such attacks have a history. Egyptian soldier Suleiman Khater killed seven Israelis on 5 October, 1985, and another soldier, Ayman Hassan, killed 21 Israelis and wounded 20 others in November 1990 in Ras Al-Naqab.

Soft diplomacy does not mean that Cairo has no strong cards to play. These include stopping security coordination; threatening to freeze the peace treaty; increasing its military presence on the borders with Gaza and Israel; and political escalation through joining South Africa’s lawsuit against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Egypt can also deliver strong messages saying it will respond to any Israeli fire, and that security tensions make it difficult to control their repercussions, in light of the tense state of Egyptian forces deployed along the border.

There are other cards that are more powerful but are unlikely to be used, according to an Egyptian expert who requested anonymity. These include Egypt resorting to hosting Hamas leaders or taking a unilateral decision to open the Rafah crossing and ensuring the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. He pointed out that Cairo’s position is governed by the personal tendencies of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, a close ally of Israel, and an opponent of the Palestinian resistance movement aligned ideologically with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Al-Sisi ousted from power in a mid-2013 coup.

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Considering all of this, the Egyptian position at the political and intelligence levels can be described as disciplined, despite dissatisfaction with the ongoing developments in Rafah, leading to a sense of betrayal by Israel. The occupation state has publicly accused Egypt of allowing Hamas to use tunnels under the border with Sinai to smuggle weapons. Cairo insists that it destroyed the tunnel networks leading to Gaza, and strengthened the border wall years ago.

What’s adding to Egyptian dissatisfaction are the promises received by Cairo through American circles that only a limited Israeli military operation was to take place in Rafah. The reality is that the offensive is being expanded on the ground, exacerbating the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, and raising the level of tension at the border. There are also rumours of proposals about the formation of a brigade within the occupation army to manage and control the affairs of the Philadelphi Corridor.

Egyptian fears are fuelled by rumoured plans to displace the population of Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula by a right-wing government in Israel, which may also intend to simply transfer the chaos to Egypt and push Cairo to take control of the Strip. We cannot underestimate the impact of holding Egyptian intelligence forces responsible for the failure to agree a truce after tampering with the terms of the agreement. This Israeli-US accusation maintains the current state of tension and may push Egypt to become more stringent regarding arrangements for the day after the war in Gaza.

Egypt insists on Israel’s withdrawal of troops from the Rafah Crossing before it can be operational again.

It warns about the repercussions of Israel’s control over the Palestinian side of Rafah, which would diminish the Egyptian role in managing the crossing and eliminate the status of the crossing as purely Palestinian-Egyptian. Israel’s presence at the crossing also violates Egyptian sovereignty over the border and harms its national security and political weight, along with the loss of the Rafah card and Egypt’s influence in the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The Egyptian position is supported by the floating pier project, which is a US-Israeli message about the marginalisation of Cairo’s role with the opening of another entry point for Gaza by sea which bypasses Rafah. It is said that the port could be developed for trade and travel and become a means for the further displacement — in this case, ethnic cleansing — of Palestinians, voluntarily or otherwise. That’s the view of Palestinian researcher Abdullah Al-Shami.

It seems that Tel Aviv wishes to impose a fait accompli, which requires its control over the Philadelphi (Salah Al-Din) Corridor and management of the border crossing, with European oversight through the revival of the EU border mission known as “EUBAM” in Rafah. The mission has been inactive since 2007 when Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip. Managing the crossing would also involve the participation of the UN and Palestinian representatives from Gaza not linked to the resistance movement, with Israeli troops redeployed outside the crossing zone. These ideas are still being discussed with Egypt.

In general, relations between Israel and Egypt remain strategic, considering the lasting peace they have been enjoying for 45 years. This means escalation needs to be calculated very carefully, with nothing beyond controlled tension and contingent on the size and seriousness of transgressions on both sides. All must be in accordance with complex regional and international equations, and high-level security and political partnerships that are not easily affected by the killing of one or more soldiers, but are, rather, linked to the higher interests of the Egyptian regime in not losing Israeli and US allies.

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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.