Egypt-Israel relations: On the brink

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 16 Feb 2024

Threats are facing more than 40 years of peace between Egypt and Israel.

Peace treaty in 1979
Peace treaty in 1979


Since Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, relations between the two countries have consistently been described as lukewarm or cold. They have nonetheless managed to keep their relations intact in a volatile region. Peace between the two countries has endured more than 40 years, holding through two Palestinian uprisings and a series of wars between Israel and Hamas.

Some analysts now think the four-month long war in Gaza could push the relationship to the brink. With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing to send troops into Rafah, tensions between the two are close to boiling point.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed that Egypt would adhere to the 1979 Peace Treaty with Israel as long as it remains reciprocal. He added that Egypt is working hard to secure a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, facilitate the exchange of detainees on both sides, and guarantee the flow of humanitarian aid.

Shoukri’s statements came on the day an informed Egyptian source told Cairo News Channel that “all scenarios and options are open in case Israel decides to send troops into Rafah, including suspending the Peace Treaty.” Other sources told Al-Arabiya TV channel on Monday that Egypt has warned several times that it will downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel should Tel Aviv storm the border town of Rafah.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said on Monday that “provocative comments by Israeli high-ranking officials such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich were sabotaging relations between the two countries and destroying ceasefire negotiation efforts, revealing an intention to kill and destroy.”

Smotrich was reported as saying that Egypt “bears considerable responsibility for what happened on 7 October”, claiming that Hamas had smuggled weapons across the Egyptian border. 

“We cannot accept accusations being directed at Egypt in a failed attempt to justify the accusers’ performance shortcomings,” said Abu Zeid.

Two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat told the Associated Press on Sunday that Egypt may suspend the Peace Treaty if Israeli troops invade Rafah. Netanyahu says Rafah is Hamas’ last remaining stronghold after more than four months of war and that sending in ground troops is necessary to defeat the group.

Political and military analyst Samir Farag points out that “the Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt has withstood nearly four and a half decades of regional wars and tensions and never before has there been talk of it being at risk.”

In a TV interview on Sunday, Farag said sending Israeli troops in Rafah would violate the 1979 Peace Treaty and argued that desperate Palestinians were being pushed to flee across the border into Egypt, something that would threaten Egypt’s national security.

Diaa Rashwan, head of Egypt’s State Information Service, posted an online statement saying “any Israeli attempt to reinstitute security control of the strip of land that separates Gaza and Egypt represents a serious threat to relations between the two countries.”

Rashwan’s comment addressed possible Israeli military operations along the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, the 14 km strip of land separating Palestine from Egypt that was established as a buffer zone with Israel as part of the 1979 Peace Treaty. Under the treaty, the number of troops placed along the border is strictly limited. 

During a plenary session in parliament on Sunday, MP Mustafa Bakri denounced Netanyahu for saying that once Israel concludes its war in the Gaza Strip it will retain security control of the border with Egypt. Such comments, he said, represented an attack on Egyptian sovereignty.

Several media outlets reported last week that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had refused to take a call from Netanyahu when the latter wanted to discuss the deployment of Israeli troops along the Philadelphi Corridor.

According to Farag, “Israel’s occupation of Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor” provides Egypt with sufficient grounds to suspend — though not to scrap — its Peace Treaty with Israel.

In a report last week, Reuters quoted two security officials as saying that Egypt has in the last two weeks sent 40 tanks and armoured personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai as part of its measures to scale up security along its border with Gaza.

Such movements, insists Farag, are purely defensive for “President Al-Sisi is a man of peace and not of war and he is very keen that Egypt not be dragged into fighting operations.”

Mohamed Mahran, an expert in international law, told Al-Ahram that the 1979 Peace Treaty makes it binding for Israel and Egypt to establish demilitarised zones along the border. 

“Article 61 of the treaty allows any party to suspend it in the event of violations,” said Mahran, adding that Israel’s military conduct in the past few weeks shows how cavalier it is about adhering to the letter of the treaty.

On Tuesday it was reported that Egyptian, American, Israeli, and Qatari officials were close to a final deal on a truce in Gaza. It was also reported that the two countries are nearing an agreement to solve the Philadelphi Corridor issue, with Israel possibly employing advanced technology to keep the area under surveillance without the need for troops on the ground.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: