Egyptian forces on high alert after Israel's takeover of Rafah crossing in Gaza

Forces in Sinai ordered to exercise maximum restraint as reconnaissance flights stepped up

Egyptian armored vehicles near the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, in March 2024. EPA
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Egypt has placed its forces in the Sinai Peninsula close to its borders with Gaza and Israel on high alert after the takeover of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing by Israel’s military, sources told The National on Wednesday.

They said the Egyptian troops there were ordered to exercise maximum restraint in the face of any provocations or accidents – such as stray shells or misguided air bombardment – arising from Israel’s military operations close to the border.

Egypt has also increased drone reconnaissance flights over the area, the sources said.

Israeli troops, tanks and armoured vehicles were 100 metres or less from Egyptian troops, a proximity the sources said raised the threat of clashes given the extent of anti-Israeli feeling in Egypt since the Gaza war broke out in October.

Egypt and Israel are bound by a US-sponsored 1979 peace treaty that ended decades of hostilities between the neighbours, including four full-fledged wars.

Their relations had for years been called “cold peace” but that has thawed in the past 10 years with the two states co-operating on counter-terrorism, anti-drugs operations and human trafficking.

The Gaza war, however, causes tension, with Egypt accusing Israel of the use of excessive force, breaching international law and using hunger as a weapon against the Palestinians.

Egypt, along with Qatar and the US, have been trying to broker a ceasefire deal in Gaza, where more than 34,800 Palestinians have been killed since October.

Israel’s takeover of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing – Gaza’s only land link to the outside world not controlled by Israel – has outrage opinion in Egypt, with many social media users cautioning the government against what they described as Israel’s belligerent mood or arrogance of military might.

Pro-government accounts, however, belittled the threat, saying that Egyptian forces were more than ready to deal with any eventuality.

Egyptian forces practised restraint during the early days of the Gaza war when a stray Israeli shell wounded several soldiers on the border.

It reacted the same way when Israeli air strikes hit the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing on four occasions to warn against sending aid to Gaza without its approval.

The Rafah crossing has been closed since Israel took over its Palestinian side early on Tuesday after launching an incursion into the eastern side of the city of Rafah.

This has disrupted convoys of relief aid into Gaza gripped by a humanitarian crisis, hunger and widespread disease.

The disruption is also denying some of the more seriously wounded in Gaza the opportunity to seek medical treatment outside the enclave.

The sources said Egypt had received advance notice of the Israeli takeover of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing. It has also been told by the Israelis that its move arose in large part from their suspicion that Hamas was receiving funds and arms through underground tunnels around Rafah.

Israeli forces closed the Karam Abu Salem crossing into Gaza on Wednesday after briefly reopening it, Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

It only allowed one fuel lorry from the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East into the enclave.

Israel has also told Egypt that its action aims to prevent some of the more extreme militants in Gaza from infiltrating Egypt, which has for years fought an insurgency by extremists in the north-east corner of Sinai.

“The move is largely a political one meant to put additional pressure on Hamas at a delicate time of the negotiations to reach a ceasefire,” said one source.

“Israel will not remain there for long, anyway, because the [truce] deal on the table provides for a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.”

Placing Egyptian forces in the area, mostly infantry and air defence units, on high alert was a precautionary but essential measure to deal with any eventuality, according to the sources.

“It is also because we can never be sure of where and when Israeli recklessness will stop,” said the source.

Egypt fears that a ground Israeli invasion of Rafah, home to some 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, would set off a mass movement of Palestinians towards Egypt, which has repeatedly said that this would “liquidate” the Palestinian cause and undermine its national security.

US Gen Michael Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, has meanwhile reassured Egypt this week that its security would not be compromised by Israel’s action in Rafah, the sources said.

Gen Kurilla was in Cairo on May 6 and 7, when he met Defence Minister Gen Mohammed Zaki.

Updated: May 09, 2024, 6:14 AM