Egypt refuses to reopen Rafah crossing while Israel controls its Gaza side

Egypt's position on the key aid crossing was relayed to Mossad officials in Cairo talks

Lorries laden with humanitarian aid wait at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Reuters
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Egypt has told Israel it will not reopen the Rafah border crossing with Gaza while Israeli troops remain on the Gazan side, sources told The National, as the row between the two countries deepens.

Israeli forces took control of the Gazan side of the crossing on May 7 as part of Israel's offensive in Rafah that has strained relations with Egypt. In response, Egypt announced it will no longer work with Israel to transfer aid into Gaza through the crossing.

Israel tried to persuade Egypt to allow aid to enter the enclave through Mossad agents who visited Cairo on Wednesday, the sources said.

They said Israel made it clear that its military intended to retain control of the Palestinian side of the crossing even if a ceasefire deal was reached.

“The Egyptians countered that the Israeli position undermined efforts by Cairo, the United States and Qatar to broker a ceasefire and cast serious doubts on the prospect of a complete withdrawal from Gaza as demanded by Hamas,” one source said.

“Egypt will not reopen the crossing and that’s its final position despite significant US pressure on Cairo to do so.”

There has been no official announcement from Cairo on Wednesday’s meeting between the Mossad officials and their Egyptian counterparts.

Egypt, which signed a US-sponsored peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has reacted angrily to the Israeli military's seizure of the Gaza side of the crossing and its ground assault on the city of Rafah, which it said posed a serious threat to Egyptian national security.

Like the US and many western nations, Egypt has repeatedly warned that sending troops into Rafah would cause a surge in Palestinian deaths – already at more than 35,200, mostly civilians – and could cause a mass displacement of people into the Sinai Peninsula.

Rafah was home to about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians before Israel’s military launched operations there on May 6. The UN said at least 600,000 people have fled the city since then.

Egypt said mass migration from Gaza would harm the Palestinian cause, adding to the departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes since Israel’s creation in 1948.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday pressed Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing, claiming that Cairo was holding the people of Gaza “hostage” by not working with Israel on the key aid route.

Israel supports “maximum humanitarian aid flows” through Rafah, Mr Netanyahu told US financial news network CNBC. “We want to see it open,” he said, adding: “I hope we can come to an understanding” with Egypt.

“I hope Egypt considers what I'm saying now,” he said. “Nobody should hold the Palestinian population hostage in any way and I'm not holding them hostage. I don't think anyone should.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Tuesday that Israel’s control of the Rafah crossing exposed aid workers and lorry drivers to “imminent dangers”.

He said Israel was “solely responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza, where the UN has warned of risks of famine.

The US, Israel's top ally, warned against a Rafah offensive and also appealed for the Rafah crossing to be reopened.

Israel’s capture of the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing has strained relations to a degree not seen since the start of the Israel-Gaza war.

In its strongest rebuke, Egypt said on Sunday it was intervening in support of South Africa’s case before the International Court of Justice, in a case that accuses Israel of genocide.

It has also placed on high alert the Egyptian forces close to the borders with Gaza and Israel. On Wednesday, sources said Egypt created a legal panel of international law and constitutional experts to identify and assess further punitive actions against Israel over its actions in Rafah.

But government leaders have been seeking to calm a wave of anti-Israeli sentiment, as well as calls on social media and by talk-show pundits to suspend the 1979 peace treaty.

The treaty, which ended decades of hostilities between Egypt and Israel, has been a cornerstone of stability in the Middle East, altering a regional political landscape defined in large part by nearly a century of conflict between the Arabs and Israel.

Moreover, it may have in many ways paved the way for Jordan to follow suit in 1994 and, more recently, four other Arab nations that established diplomatic relations with Israel.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 2:27 PM