Israel and Egypt face crisis in relations over Israeli plan to control border

Analysts say Israel's actions in Gaza endanger Egypt's national security but that the countries' peace treaty will likely endure

This photograph taken on January 15, 2024 from Rafah shows smoke billowing over Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip during Israeli bombardment. AFP
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Relations between Israel and Egypt are at risk of plunging into crisis if Israel pushes on towards its stated goal of controlling the border between Gaza and Egypt, analysts have warned.

Tensions between the two neighbours, who signed a landmark peace treaty in 1979 after fighting several wars, had already soured since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on Egypt's doorstep in October.

Israel has ignored consistent calls for a ceasefire by Egypt and other Arab countries, continuing with its devastating military offensive despite a mounting civilian death toll.

But recent assertions by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel must control Gaza's border with Egypt threaten to further strain relations, putting pressure on the milestone peace treaty signed 44 years ago between the two former foes.

“Things have been very tense, but there are limits to how far these tensions can go on a strategic level,” said Michael Hanna, a senior Middle East expert with International Crisis Group.

“The treaty will stay but the quality of relations will suffer,” he told The National. “Deploying Israeli troops on the Gaza side of the border represents a big shift in the status quo and will have long-term repercussions. It also adds one more complicating factor to efforts to win self-determination for the Palestinians.”

Mr Netanyahu said on Saturday that a decision had yet to be made about a potential military takeover of the “Philadelphia Corridor”, the stretch of land that runs alongside the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt.

He said that sealing off the zone to isolate Hamas was one of Israel's aims for the war in Gaza, and that "there are a number of options" for how it could do so, including moving troops into the corridor.

“We have looked into these and have yet to make a decision,” he added.

Mr Netanyahu's comments marked an escalatory shift on the question of the Egypt-Gaza border.

Egyptian security officials earlier this month said Cairo has rejected Israel's suggested plan to install surveillance cameras and sensors on the Gaza side of the border. Since the outbreak of the war, Egypt has hurriedly built a concrete wall and erected fences with barbed wire along the 13km length of the border with Gaza.

Egypt, which administered Gaza between 1948 and 1967, has tightly controlled its border with Gaza, where the militant Hamas group has ruled since 2007.

It accuses Hamas of taking advantage of the chaos in Egypt during a 2011 popular uprising and dispatching an armed group that freed leaders of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood from several Egyptian prisons. In 2008, Hamas angered Egypt when it orchestrated the overrunning by tens of thousands of Palestinians of the land crossing in the town of Rafah in the Sinai Peninsula to protest the blockade of the territory.

But Egypt has more recently developed a good working relationship with Hamas and mediated several truces to end its wars with Israel, casting aside its policy of zero tolerance at home for political Islam.

The Israeli leader's comments triggered a flurry of angry responses from the Egyptian media, with the hosts and guests of popular late-night talk shows vilifying Mr Netanyahu. In contrast, the government’s reaction has been measured.

“Egypt exercises full control of its border (with Gaza),” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said in response to Mr Netanyahu’s comments.

“These matters are subject to security and international agreements between the concerned states.”

Pro-government commentators have been less cautious, with one claiming that Mr Netanyahu’s sole aim was to prolong the Gaza war to stave off the day when he and his right-wing government will have to account for the security and intelligence lapses that allowed Hamas fighters and their allies in Gaza to rampage in southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 and taking 240 hostages back to the territory.

“If the war ends tomorrow, Netanyahu will lose his job … and will be in jail a week later on corruption charges,” said Sameer Farag, a retired army general whose comments are known to reflect the government’s thinking.

“We have destroyed 194 tunnels (between Egypt and Gaza) because that served our national security,” he said, alluding to action by the military several years ago to stop large-scale smuggling operations overseen by Hamas.

Egypt and Israel, who fought four fully-fledged wars between 1948 and 1973, are not new to suffering rocky spells in their relations.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, a seismic geopolitical development that sealed the exit of the most populous Arab nation from the Cold War-era Soviet camp it had been part of since the 1950s.

It simultaneously signalled the start of Egypt’s alliance with the United States, which endures to this day and whose survival and the billions of dollars in US aid that come with it hinges in large part on Cairo’s continuing peace with Israel.

With ties mostly restricted to government-to-government dealings and more recently security and counterterrorism co-operation, ordinary Egyptians have continued to shun their country’s former enemy. Vehement opposition awaited any sign of normalisation outside state channels. The media, meanwhile, never completely dropped its hostile narrative towards Israel.

Relations have been strained during various flashpoints, such as Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq's under-construction nuclear reactor or the invasion of Lebanon the following year. Cairo has also withdrawn its ambassador in 1982 and at least once again in the 2000s, when it has perceived Israel has committed excessive transgressions against the Palestinians.

But diplomatic relations have not been severed since 1979, and the treaty survived.

The war in Gaza, however, has introduced a new level of deep and dangerous tension that will be difficult to defuse.

The tension has been fueled by right-wing Israeli politicians suggesting that Gaza's 2.3 million residents should be pushed out of the territory and into Egypt’s Sinai, a suggestion that drew angry reactions from President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who contends that such a development would “liquidate” the Palestinian issue and violate Egyptian sovereignty.

The two countries have also publicly quarrelled over the speed with which humanitarian aid is being sent from Egypt to Gaza, where a humanitarian crisis has been sparked by Israel’s bombardment of the enclave and the displacement of more than 80 per cent of its residents.

The high death toll among Gaza’s Palestinians – more than 24,100, the majority of whom are women and children – has revived the kind of resentment felt by Egyptians towards Israel when the pair fought each other.

The first incident to sour relations since the war began was the “accidental” stray shell fired by Israeli troops in late October that hit a border tower on the Egyptian side of the border in the Sinai Peninsula, wounding nine soldiers, two seriously. Israel immediately apologised.

Next came the Israeli bombardment on at least four occasions of the Gaza side of Egypt’s land crossing in Rafah. Egyptian security sources said at the time that they suspected the strikes were meant as a warning to Cairo against sending humanitarian aid to Gaza without its prior approval.

Last week, a member of Israel’s defence team in the International Court of Justice, which is looking at charges of genocide in Gaza brought by South Africa against Israel, blamed Egypt for the slow pace of dispatching humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The accusation drew an angry and indignant denial from Cairo.

Anis Salem, a retired Egyptian diplomat who now sits on the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, believes Israel’s actions in Gaza pose serious national security challenges for Egypt that have gone largely unnoticed by the world.

He cited a drop in the vital tourism sector and reduced traffic in the Suez Canal, another much-needed source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped nation.

“Egypt has built its Middle East strategy on peace with Israel as a prelude to regional peace,” he told The National. “But what Israel is doing now impinges on Egypt’s strategic interests,” he warned.

Updated: January 15, 2024, 3:27 PM