Rafah: A catastrophe unfolds

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 15 May 2024

Dina Ezzat examines the impact of Israel’s ground offensive in Rafah on already fraught Egyptian-Israeli relations.

As Rafah awaits the disastrous ground invasion that Israel has defied the whole world to undertake,
As Rafah awaits the disastrous ground invasion that Israel has defied the whole world to undertake, children torn from their homes dwell upon the desolate path that lies ahead. (photo: AFP)


Cairo had no illusion — “none whatsoever”, as one source put it — about Israel’s determination to conduct a ground operation in Rafah. It was clear, say Egyptian officials, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a majority of his cabinet and military aides were fully behind an operation.

Officials who have been speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly since 7 October insist that it has been clear for weeks that Netanyahu would neither hold off on his plans for a ground offensive nor agree to the evacuation of civilians from Rafah despite US pressure.

The same sources said that last week, following the start of the ground operation, Cairo made it clear that Egypt expects Israel to be mindful of the scope of military operations on the border with Egypt, and especially near the Rafah crossing and in the Philadelphi Corridor. In response, Israel promised to observe the stipulations of the Camp David Accords that regulate the operation of Israeli troops in the area.

Now it is clear that Netanyahu had no intention of honouring the understandings reached with Egypt on the extent of the operations. An American attempt to get Israel to abide by the agreed parameters failed, leading to direct high-level phone calls from Cairo to Tel Aviv warning Israel that Egypt’s patience is wearing thin.

“The Israelis were told in very clear language that they need to reconsider two things, the profile of their presence near the Rafah crossing and in the Philadelphi Corridor, and their management of the humanitarian situation on the ground,” said a source speaking on condition of anonymity.

He explained the “provocative” Israeli presence near the Egyptian border was unsettling public opinion and “this is not something that we are willing to accommodate,” and that the failure to secure an orderly evacuation of the city in which 1.5 million Palestinians had sought shelter, combined with the refusal to allow the entry of any humanitarian aid, threatened a humanitarian catastrophe.

The source said that faced with Israel’s refusal to accommodate Egypt’s concerns, Cairo had decided to “act accordingly”. The announcement this week that Egypt would formally support the case South Africa has been pursuing against Israel for months before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) “is just one of many steps Cairo could take”.

The source declined, however, to answer two key questions. Does the announcement mean that Egypt will be providing legal assistance to South Africa or will it join the allegations of genocide against Israel before the ICJ? And at what point could the escalation lead to the recall of Egypt’s ambassador to Israel?

According to an Egyptian government source close to the joint Egyptian-Qatari-American mediation that has been trying to secure a ceasefire, Cairo has not yet given up on mediation.

Before the start of the Israeli ground operation Egypt had hosted two days of indirect negotiations between Israeli and Hamas delegations though it “was very clear that the chances to move forward were very slim”. The talks started after Hamas Political Bureau head Ismail Haniyeh gave the green light to an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. The concept paper outlining the foundations of the ceasefire was widely shared during the hours that followed Haniyeh’s acceptance. The language, said the source, may have been “untight” but it included an Israeli commitment to an eventual withdrawal from Gaza and a sustainable ceasefire.

It did not take Netanyahu long to withhold Israeli approval. The paper that Hamas agreed to was drafted jointly by Egypt, Qatar, and the US, with the direct “and very involved participation” of CIA Chief William Burns. Israel, say sources, was informed of every amendment made to the draft during the four days between Israeli officials last seeing it and the day it was sent to Hamas.

They add that when the Israeli delegation was in Cairo it quickly became clear that it was not there to constructively engage in negotiations to reach an agreement.

“The delegation was not high-level, and it did not have a mandate to negotiate,’ said one. To further complicate things, on arrival the delegation conveyed a message indicating that Israel was walking back on some of the language it had already agreed on the management of the hostage deal.

In the early hours of 7 October 2023, Hamas launched a surprise operation in which it and other Gaza-based resistance groups took 200 Israeli hostages. During a four-day truce in November, 50 women, children, and teenagers under the age of 19 were freed in return for 150 Palestinian women and teenagers in Israeli detention. Since then, with the Israeli government facing increasing pressure from the families of the remaining hostages over Netanyahu’s failure to live up to his promise to secure their release by military force, Egypt, Qatar, and the US have been pushing for a hostage deal as the cornerstone of a wider ceasefire agreement.

A Cairo-based European diplomat said it is “likely that Netanyahu was not expecting Burns to work on amending the paper to get Hamas to agree and when this happened he was caught off guard and already readying his troops to enter Rafah.” The source added that it was “practically very difficult” for Netanyahu to cancel the start of the military ground operation after preparations had reached such a high-level.

At the start of the Israeli offensive, Egyptian, European, and other sources still hoped Netanyahu would restrict the operation to a limited incursion pending the conclusion of a ceasefire agreement. Those hopes have quickly faded. What only a week ago was being posited as the “unlikely” worst case scenario — an operation that would last for a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, with a lot of bloodshed — now looks increasingly likely.

Egyptian sources say that when the delegations left Cairo last week it was “pending further consultations”. A next meeting — with no date set, though sometime this month — was tentatively agreed in Doha. Last week Doha duly sent out invitations for the parties and mediators to reconvene in the Qatari capital.

“The details of the meeting are still subject to consultations, but it will happen sometime this month. This is why Netanyahu, despite everything, has not ordered a very violent operation in Rafah, or at least not yet,” said the Cairo-based European source.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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