Egypt's military building 'buffer zone' on 3km stretch of Gaza border

Construction began five days ago and is expected to extend south from the Rafah crossing to the Kerem Shalom crossing

A satellite image showing reported buffer zone construction in Rafah, Egypt, on February 10. AP
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The Egyptian military is building what appears to be a buffer zone on a 3.5km stretch of Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, witnesses told The National.

The construction has rekindled rumours that a planned displacement of Gazans into Egypt is under way. Construction work, which has not yet been explained by the armed forces, began five days ago near the Rafah border crossing.

This will be the northernmost point of the new zone that will extend more than 3km south to end near the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza, an Egyptian security officer said.

The National also spoke to a high-ranking military official who refused to confirm that the buffer zone was being built to receive displaced Palestinians, over a million of whom are on the Palestinian side of Rafah, a city divided by the Egypt-Gaza border, where an Israeli barrage has intensified in the past few days.

“Because of what has been circulated in the media since the war began about Egypt taking in Gazans, everyone is merely speculating that what is being built is a buffer zone. But this has not been confirmed from our side yet,” the military official said.

An Egyptian soldier stationed on the border said he had not been told the purpose of the construction but those discussions would take place among higher ranks.

However, an aid worker stationed near the crossing told The National that large amounts of building material were being taken to the site, along with heavy machinery.

He said this implied construction would be bigger than routine repairs of stretches of Egypt’s border fence.

The fence had been repaired multiple times following what the Israeli military said were misfired strikes that accidentally damaged the Egyptian side of the border.

The construction of the buffer zone was first reported by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights earlier this week.

A watchdog organisation operating in the peninsula, the foundation is also a staunch critic of the military and its various projects in the Sinai which have resulted in the displacement of tens of thousands of the peninsula’s Bedouin natives.

The foundation’s report cited multiple Egyptian officials who said the buffer zone was being built over concerns that Israeli strikes on Rafah, which have been intensifying over the past week, would result in an unwanted exodus of Palestinians into Egyptian territory.

Egypt has repeatedly expressed its rejection of a large-scale displacement, with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi accusing Israel in November of trying to wash its hands of “the Palestinian issue” by pushing them into Egypt.

However, there have also been widely-circulated rumours that the Egyptian state had struck a deal with Israel to take an undetermined number of Palestinians in exchange for financial aid or debt relief, which the cash-strapped nation sorely needs as its economy is in dire straits.

The rumours, however, have been repeatedly denied by the government.

Israel’s war in Gaza, which the International Court of Justice has warned could be considered genocidal if more isn't done to protect civilians, has killed nearly 29,000, according to a Thursday update from the Gaza health ministry, as it continues into its fifth month.

The war has resulted in large-scale demolitions of most of the enclave's homes, civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools and places of worship.

Negotiations for a ceasefire took place in Cairo on Tuesday where CIA chief William Burns met the heads of Egyptian and Israeli intelligence agencies and Qatar's Prime Minister and security chief. The talks put forth new terms for a cessation of hostilities.

However, Israel rejected the terms of the deal with a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting: “Israel will not capitulate to Hamas's ludicrous demands. A change in Hamas's positions will make it possible to move forward in the negotiations.”

Updated: February 16, 2024, 10:26 AM