Egypt considers more punitive measures against Israel over Rafah border crossing seizure

Lowering diplomatic representation and suspending peace treaty are among Cairo's options, sources say

A Palestinian boy at a school used as a shelter by displaced people who fled Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Egypt’s intervention in support of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice is likely to be the first in a series of punitive measures the country will take in response to the military operations in the southern Gazan city of Rafah, sources said on Monday.

They said the Egyptian government was planning to follow up on Sunday's ICJ declaration with a “slow and gradual” escalation of measures. These are likely to include downgrading Cairo’s diplomatic representation in Israel, the sources said.

Israel’s persistence with its actions in Rafah, they said, could lead to bigger consequences by suspending Cairo’s 45-year-old peace treaty with Israel, a milestone accord that ended decades of animosity during which the two nations fought four fully fledged wars between 1948 and 1973.

Egypt has refused to co-operate with Israel on sending humanitarian aid to Gaza through the Rafah crossing since the latter’s seizure of the facility on May 7, according to the sources.

Israel has meanwhile been rapidly expanding its ground military operations in parts of the city, repeating the argument that it is trying to destroy Hamas’s last remaining combat battalions.

“Egypt has no intention of going to war with Israel but it has a range of options to choose from to show its anger over its neighbour’s actions," one of the sources said. “Suspending the treaty, though, would be a huge deal that could rock the entire region."

Egypt was angered by Israel's seizure of the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and swiftly placed its forces on high alert near the border with Gaza and stepped up reconnaissance flights over the region, sources said.

The forces were also ordered to exercise extreme restraint in the face of any provocations, they added.

The source’s assessment on the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was validated by comments made on Sunday by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, who sought to defuse frenzied media speculation about how Egypt would respond to Israel’s actions.

“The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty is a strategic choice Egypt made four decades ago and is a main pillar of regional peace and security,” he told a joint press conference with the Slovenian Foreign Minister, Tanja Fajon.

“The treaty has its mechanisms that are activated in the case of any breaches,” he said in reply to a question on whether Israel’s takeover of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing violated the treaty’s terms.

Egypt, which borders Israel and Gaza, had repeatedly warned Israel against launching a ground operation in Rafah, arguing that such action could significantly add to the death toll of Palestinian civilians, already at about 35,100, since the war started seven months ago.

About 1.4 million Palestinians have taken refuge in Rafah on the Egyptian border to escape fighting elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. Nearly 360,000 of them have left in recent days, according to the UN, as Israel expanded its ground offensive in the city.

Egypt has also warned that a ground assault there could force those in the city to flee across the border and into Egypt to find safety in the vast and sparsely populated Sinai Peninsula, thus contributing to the demise of the Palestinian cause and undermining Egyptian national security.

Egypt, along with the US and Qatar, he added, intended to continue with efforts to broker a ceasefire in the Gaza war.

Mr Shoukry was speaking only days after the latest round of Gaza ceasefire negotiations ended in Cairo without a breakthrough. It was the latest failure by Egypt and fellow mediators the US and Qatar to broker a pause in the war and bring about a prisoner and hostage swap between Israel and Hamas.

The mediators have been unable to persuade the two sides to silence the guns since a week-long pause was agreed to in late November.

The Gaza war was triggered by a Hamas attack on southern Israel in October that left 1,200 dead, mostly civilians. The Gaza-based group also took 240 hostages.

Israel’s relentless military campaign since has laid waste to much of Gaza’s built-up areas and created a massive humanitarian crisis. The vast majority of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have been displaced.

Egypt has criticised Israel for what it called its policy of collective punishment, excessive force and weaponisation of food. Its decision to join South Africa in the genocide case at the ICJ, though largely symbolic, can be seen as its strongest rebuke of its eastern neighbour.

Since the start of the war, there has not been any official announcement in Cairo that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unusual for two leaders whose countries share a common border adjacent to Gaza and bound by a peace treaty.

Notably, there has been no official Israeli response to the Egyptian decision on the South Africa case.

Egypt’s announcement that it was supporting South Africa’s genocide case against Israel came in a scathingly critical Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday, which said the decision was motivated by the “sharp escalation and the scope of Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip”.

The statement made no specific mention of Rafah but, according to Michael Hanna, the New York-based director of the US programme at the International Crisis Group, “it was obviously a retaliation for Israel’s actions in Rafah”.

The ICJ, also known as the World Court, in January ordered Israel to refrain from any acts that could fall under the Genocide Convention and to ensure its troops commit no genocidal acts against Palestinians, after South Africa accused it of state-led genocide in Gaza.

Israel and its western allies described the allegations as baseless and a final ruling in the case could take years.

Egypt had complained to senior US officials about Israel’s actions in Rafah, Mr Hanna said.

He said presentations were made during meetings last week in Cairo with CIA director William Burns and Gen Michael Kurilla, the most senior US soldier in the Middle East.

“They received an earful from Egyptian officials on the gravity of Israel’s actions in Rafah,” said Mr Hanna.

In an interview with CNN at the weekend, US President Joe Biden cited Egypt's anger over Israel's actions in Rafah, without going into further details.

Updated: May 14, 2024, 6:27 AM