Egypt and Israel: Complicated relations

Egypt, Gaza, Palestine, Israel, war, peace, Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

Tensions between Egypt and Israel have been repeatedly surfacing since the war on Gaza started in October, reports Dina Ezzat

Egypt and Israel: Complicated relations


On Monday night Egyptian forces prevented a drug smuggling attempt on the Egyptian-Israeli border crossing of Al-Awja after an exchange of fire, an Egyptian army spokesperson said. Al-Awja, around 40km south of Rafah, is the main crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

One person was killed in the incident and six drug smugglers were arrested, said the army spokesperson. The incident comes at a time of tension between the two countries as the war in Gaza rages on.

“Of course, there is tension, but I cannot say we are willing to compromise engaging Israel on a ceasefire deal for any reason.” This was how one informed Egyptian source qualified the state of affairs between Egypt and Israel over the past three months and since the beginning of the Israeli war on Gaza.

Since the beginning of the war on 7 October following the Hamas operation Al-Aqsa Flood that hit Israeli targets, Egypt has tried to play “a calming role” in the conflict, the source said.

“We understand the frustration of the Palestinians, but we did not approve of the Hamas operation because we saw what was coming,” he said.

“We knew that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu would use the operation as an excuse to carpet-bomb Gaza. We said this to Hamas — and unfortunately we were proven right.”

Egypt has tried “from day one to stop the war”, he added.

“We have made calls, some at the very highest level. We have sent envoys, and we have received delegations. We managed to secure a humanitarian ceasefire [in November] for a few days and then to extend it for a few more days.”

“We could not have done this without engaging Israel,” the source said.

He added that despite its “obvious frustration with some of Israel’s statements and positions,” Egypt will continue to work with Israel, the Palestinians, and all other concerned parties to secure another ceasefire and “hopefully a longer and maybe more durable one”.

“We got close a couple of weeks ago, but the Israeli assassination of [Hamas leader Saleh] Al-Arouri derailed everything. However, we are picking up again,” he said.

According to another well-informed source speaking earlier this week, Egypt has received an Israeli security delegation to “continue discussions on a ceasefire”.

He said that this has not been stopped by claims made before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the Israeli legal team defending Israel against charges of committing crimes of genocide in Gaza that implicated Egypt in preventing humanitarian relief entering into Gaza, due to Cairo’s control over the Rafah border crossing.

On 29 December, South Africa filed a complaint against Israel before the ICJ accusing it of violating the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in its war on Gaza. On 11 January, a South African legal team detailed Israel’s deliberate halting of food, water, and medical supplies entering Gaza under constant Israeli bombardment.

On 12 January, responding to these accusations, the Israeli legal team at the ICJ said that complaints about the limited entry of relief material into Gaza should be blamed on Egypt on the assumption that it is controlling the Rafah border crossing.

In response, head of Egypt’s State Information Service Diaa Rashwan said that the statement of the Israeli legal team was untrue given that Egypt needed the agreement of Israel for every single aid truck going into Gaza. He also referred to the detailed Israeli inspection of every truck before it is allowed to go into the Strip.

Rashwan said that over 80 per cent of all relief material going into Gaza had been donated either by the state or by civil society in Egypt. He accused Israel of trying to avert the legal accusations made in the ICJ case by blaming them on Egypt.

A UN source who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity said that “Egypt coordinates with Israel the entry of the aid material.”

A Foreign Ministry source said that Egypt could not just let the trucks go in because they would either have come under attack during the Israeli bombing of Gaza “that has been going on from the north to the south of the Strip” or they would have been returned.

He added that several trucks were not allowed to go into Gaza as Israel objected to the material they were carrying, including some medical equipment and medicines, under the pretext of dual use.

A source from the Egyptian Red Crescent who had spoken earlier to the Weekly said that some trucks were denied entry into Gaza by the Israeli inspection teams that look into every truck at a nearby crossing point prior to allowing it to go into Gaza.

According to the Foreign Ministry source, Israel is “just playing legal games”.

“Technically speaking, Egypt controls the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing. However, Israel is bombarding the whole of Gaza. We have been unable to get anything or anyone in or out of Gaza, including the foreign hostages who were taken by Hamas on 7 October and international medical teams without prior and detailed coordination with Israel.”

“We were not going to endanger the security of anyone, and we are not going to do it in response to the Israeli claims,” the source added.

In a statement made during an earlier phase of the war Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Egypt was “waiting for Israeli approval” to allow the entry of aid material into Gaza. “At the time, we did not hear an Israeli official, or for that matter an American official, contest this statement. It is just that Israel is coming under pressure now,” he said.

The statement by the Israeli legal team came as the Israeli war on Gaza was entering its 100th day, with close to 24,000 Palestinians killed and double that figure wounded, some with permanent physical injuries.

The Israeli war on Gaza has led to the displacement of close to two million Palestinians and destroyed over 80 per cent of its housing capacity.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza under the leadership of then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, but it did not relinquish its security zoning of the Strip.

In 2007, a feud between Hamas, which won the legislative elections in the Strip in 2006, and the Palestinian Authority (PA)-dominated Fatah group headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas forced PA representatives out of Gaza. Since then, Hamas has been carrying out militant resistance operations against the Israeli occupation.

Egypt has been trying to promote the return of the PA to Gaza as part of a thorough but never implemented Palestinian reconciliation scheme. It has also been playing an active part in diplomacy to secure the commitment of both Hamas and the other resistance factions in Gaza and Israel to a policy of restraint, despite the repeated Israeli wars on Hamas since late 2008.

In response to these, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, making the Rafah crossing the only non-Israeli controlled access point that Palestinians in Gaza had to the outside world. During the 17 years of the Israeli blockade, Egypt has opened and closed the crossing in line with its security interests and in view of the humanitarian situation in Gaza. 

In 2009, Egypt adopted a more restrictive security policy at the border that it blamed on the disorderly breaking of the border by the Palestinians.

However, during these years, Egyptian diplomatic and political sources have maintained in their off-the-record statements that Egypt was trying hard to get Hamas to opt for a political solution in view of the “futility” of militant resistance against Israel.

Today, the Foreign Ministry source said that Egypt “is still trying — perhaps more than before — to convince the Hamas political leaders to give politics a chance.”

“It is hard to underestimate the damage that has been inflicted on Gaza and its people since 7 October,” he said.

Along with this political position, Egypt has been working to control the illegal tunnels that have been operating between Gaza and the Egyptian territory. An informed security source said earlier in the war that at least 80 if not 90 per cent of these tunnels had been eliminated.

However, this week and back-to-back with the Israeli statement before the ICJ, Netanyahu said that Israel is planning to take control of the Philadelphi/Salaheddin Corridor on the border between Egypt and Gaza in order to “close this southern opening” that allows for the continued entry of military equipment to Hamas.

The statement prompted a debate on the legitimacy of this proposition under the terms of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979. A government source who spoke on condition of anonymity said that it is not exactly clear what Israel has in mind, “but it knows very well that whatever it does has to be either compatible with the Peace Treaty or in agreement and coordination with Egypt.”

In a press statement, Spokesman for the Foreign Ministry Ahmed Abu Zeid said Egypt would continue to be in full control of its borders and would subject any proposition to due legal consideration.

According to the Foreign Ministry source, however, the issue is not about what will happen and what Egypt will agree to. He added that during its war on terrorism in Sinai Egypt had expanded its military and security presence in areas beyond the limits stipulated in the Camp David Accords signed a year earlier than the Peace Treaty as a result of “an understanding with Israel” that was secured during “regular security and military coordination meetings”.

The issue, he said, is political. “It is clear that Netanyahu is in a political crisis given his own legal issues and the growing split within his government and military over the management of the war. He is trying to divert attention from this internal crisis by coming across as an ultimate right-winger who does not care about anything or anyone,” he said.

According to Abeer Yassin, a Palestinian affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, the tension this week between Israel and Egypt is indicative of “a more complex situation in relation to Egyptian-Israeli relations.”

Despite the Peace Treaty, Yassin said, Israel cannot ignore the fact that there is a core issue that has a direct influence on Egyptian-Israeli relations, namely the Palestinian issue. It is one thing for Egypt to work on promoting peace talks between the Palestinians and Israelis and another for Egypt to agree with all Israeli plans on the Palestinian issue.

“This is not about Gaza. This is about the core of the Palestinian issue. The fact of the matter is that Egypt has no intention of joining the Israeli scheme to eliminate all chances of a Palestinian state. This is what is at stake, and this is the real reason behind the implicit Israeli attack on Egypt,” Yassin said.

“The current situation shows that while it has been signing peace deals with some Arab countries, Israel has not in fact been adopting peace policies.”

Israel must have got “confused” as a result of the signing of the so-called Abraham Accords with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020. “It might have thought that it could pursue bilateral relations away from the Palestinian cause. This might work with countries that have had no wars with Israel and that have no direct borders and no direct involvement with Palestine, but this is not the case for Egypt,” she said.

“It was not and it cannot be the case,” she added.

Yassin said that Egypt is “legitimately being prudent in its reaction to the recent Israeli positions.” It cannot decide its relations with Israel in view of the positions taken by an ultra-right-wing Israeli government under a prime minister who is possibly in the final battle of his political career, she said.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: