Beaten but not broken, Egypt-Israel ties tested by Gaza war

Bound by a 1979 peace treaty, the two countries' relations are a pillar of regional stability

An injured Palestinian man is moved past Egyptian health ministry ambulances on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. AFP
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Oddly for two countries bound by a historic peace treaty and close ties, there has been no public contact between the leaders of Egypt and Israel since the Gaza war began on October 7.

Instead, there has been, from Egypt's side, the type of scathing criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza that had not been heard from Cairo in years.

Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt's leader of 10 years, said Israel's relentless bombardment of Gaza since October 7 amounted to “collective punishment”. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza, where more than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began in October.

Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque, the world's foremost seat of Sunni Islam learning and traditionally a bastion of tolerance and moderation, has since the war been referring to Israel as the “terrorist Zionist entity” or the “criminal entity” and accusing it of genocide – language that has rarely been used by Egypt's mainstream institutions since it signed a peace treaty in 1979.

Egypt has reportedly beefed up defences in the Sinai Peninsula along its border with Israel and Gaza. It has also put its security forces there on high alert and is conducting reconnaissance flights over the area.

Israel has struck the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing with Egypt at least four times, signalling to Cairo that no humanitarian relief will be able to enter Gaza without its approval.

The dispatch of aid, albeit in amounts way below what is needed, began on October 21.

On the Egyptian side, high-powered military committees have been set up to determine the nature and causes of undisclosed border infringements by Israel since the Gaza war began, according to Egyptian officials.

Very little has been said by either country about two incidents involving the two sides since the start of the war, one a fatal shooting of two Israeli tourists in Egypt and the other an apparent stray shell injuring nine Egyptian soldiers stationed at a border tower.

Egypt's rhetoric on Israel harkens back to the years between 1948 and 1973 when Egypt fought Israel in four full-fledged wars. The loss of tens of thousands of lives and the economic deprivation created by those wars have enshrined Israel's place in Egypt's collective consciousness as an enemy, an image that has not changed much in the 44 years since the peace treaty was signed.

That notion of Israel as an enemy has been in play since the beginning of the Gaza war, which was sparked by a deadly rampage by Hamas militants in southern Israel on October 7.

“The war crimes by and brutality of Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza have hurt the Egyptian government, exposing it before its own people as unable or helpless to act to stop them," Ammar Ali Hassan, a sociopolitical scientist and author, told The National.

In a bid to ease popular anger over Israel's actions in Gaza, the Cairo government relaxed its decade-old ban on street protests last month, allowing pro-Palestinian rallies. Fearing they could spiral out of control, authorities later moved to prevent them, using riot police in some cases.

Egypt's peace treaty with Israel is a cornerstone of their respective geo-strategic postures. That the US is its guarantor gives it a key element of constancy that neither country has been keen or willing to touch despite a series of sharp differences and squabbles over the years.

“It has always been a cold peace with no people component,” said Michael Hanna, a prominent Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group. “This Gaza war has definitely chilled relations and will lead to ruptures, but the peace treaty is not going anywhere.

“Things are made more difficult because Israel is seeking to change the reality on the ground in Gaza this time around and is not saying what exactly is its endgame.”

Beside what it says are war crimes committed by Israel in Gaza, Egypt's main quarrel with its former enemy is centred on what it sees as an Israeli military tactic to push Palestinians in the territory to move south close to the Egyptian border as a prelude to their flight into Egypt's vast Sinai Peninsula to find safety.

Mr El Sisi has used uncompromising language in a series of public warnings against pushing Gaza's Palestinians into Sinai, saying that will liquidate the Palestinian cause and endanger Egypt's national security.

“The history of Egyptian-Israeli relations since the peace treaty has been defined by ups and downs,” a senior Egyptian diplomat told The National. “What we are witnessing today is somewhat similar to what happened in 1982 when Israel invaded Lebanon to expel Palestinian guerrillas based there.

“But the difference is that back then, peace between Egypt and Israel was still new and fragile. Now, peace between them is rooted in strategic doctrines embraced by their militaries and security agencies,” said the diplomat, who has years of experience of direct dealings with the Israeli government.

“However, Israel's actions in Gaza and its perceived plan to push the enclave's residents into Sinai to find safety and shelter have been a major source of alarm in Egypt. Egypt has made it clear to the Israelis that peace between the two nations will be at serious risk if the resettlement scheme goes ahead.”

That may not be as far fetched as it seems.

“Northern Gaza has been made uninhabitable by Israel's bombardment," Mr Hanna said. "I don't see any of the tens of thousands forced to move south going back north any time soon. We believe Israel will be creating a buffer zone there.”

This and a crushing economic crisis have left Egypt in an unenviable position, but some experts believe Israel will in the end desist.

“Israel ultimately sees Egypt as a potentially formidable opponent that it does not want to provoke,” Mr Hassan said. “It does not want to see it becoming a frontline state again.

“But one must always remember that wars are not fought on battlefields alone.”

Updated: November 15, 2023, 1:50 PM