Why the war in the Gaza Strip is weakening relations between Israel and Egypt

Why the war in the Gaza Strip is weakening relations between Israel and Egypt
Why the war in the Gaza Strip is weakening relations between Israel and Egypt

Cairo is worried about the consequences of this conflict taking place on its border, fearing in particular an influx of Gazan refugees. The start of Israeli military operations in Rafah increases tension.

They pass the buck. Cairo and Tel Aviv accused each other, Tuesday, May 14, of being responsible for the closure of the Rafah crossing point, the only one between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, which drastically reduces the quantity of humanitarian aid who enters the enclave. “The world blames the humanitarian situation to Israel, but the key to avoiding a crisis in Gaza is now in the hands of our Egyptian friends.”assured Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz, https://twitter.com/Israel_katz/status/1790390029061112108. In response, his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Choukri, denounced “categorically Israel’s policy of distorting the facts and avoiding responsibility”. There “humanitarian disaster” in the Palestinian enclave is “the direct result of indiscriminate atrocities committed by Israelis”he added.

These exchanges illustrate the tension between Cairo and Tel Aviv, whose relations have been strained since the start of the Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip. Egypt is, however, the first Arab country to have normalized its relations with Israel and, since 1978 and the Camp David agreements, the two neighbors have been at peace. “Before October 7, Egypt cooperated with Israel’s 17-year blockade of Gaza”recalls Timothy E. Kaldas, deputy director of Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a think tank based in the United States. This collaboration is explained by Cairo’s distrust of Hamas, as well as its dependence “American aid, particularly military aid, regularly conditioned on acceptance of Israeli wishes”notes Thomas Vescovi, researcher and author of several works on the history of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

But the vast Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip has had profound repercussions in Egypt. Attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in support of Hamas, have “strongly disturbed” commercial maritime traffic in the Red Sea, notes Timothy E. Kaldas, professor of international relations and specialist in Egyptian foreign policy. As a result, the number of cargo ships using the Suez Canal has fallen sharply since December, according to the British statistics office, with serious economic consequences for Egypt, already affected by the explosion of its public debt and galloping inflation. .

“Israel’s war is extremely unpopular among the Egyptian population, already angry at the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. It is therefore in its interest that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not worsen to the point of threatening stability in his country.”

Timothy E. Kaldas, professor of international relations

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Cairo also fears the influx of Gazan refugees into the Sinai desert, which borders the south of the Palestinian enclave. “It is first of all a question of principle, because each time Palestinians have been driven from their land by Israel, they have never been able to return”, underlines Thomas Vescovi. It is also a security issue for Egypt. “President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi believes that a massive population displacement poses the risk that Hamas members will transfer their activities to Sinai,” explains Timothy E. Kaldas. However, according to the Egyptian head of state, attacks carried out from Egypt would open the way to an Israeli military response, jeopardizing the Camp peace agreements David.”

Cairo therefore opposes the long-announced offensive by Israel against the town of Rafah, which borders its border, for fear of seeing the displaced Gazans who have gathered there trying to enter its territory. On May 6, the Israeli army nevertheless ordered civilians to evacuate certain neighborhoods of Rafah, and engaged in intense fighting in the east of the city. “This advance is seen as a threat by Egypt, because Israeli forces now have control over the entries and exits at the Rafah crossing point“, notes Thomas Vescovi. Cairo also fears seeing Tel Aviv take control of the “Philadelphia corridor”, a buffer zone on the border between Gaza and Egypt, where Israeli intelligence claims that Hamas tunnels are located . This too “could legitimately be seen as a violation of the Camp David Accords”believes Thomas Vescovi.

The start of operations in Rafah also coincided with Tel Aviv’s rejection of a ceasefire agreement approved by Hamas. A snub for Egypt, which had negotiated this humanitarian pause alongside the two other mediators, Qatar and the United States. “From the first days of the conflict, [Le Caire] helped organize initial discussions on the release of Israeli hostages and a cease-fire”recalls Thomas Vescovi.

“Egypt considers that the Palestinian question is its preserve (…) and that any negotiation must go through it.”

Thomas Vescovi, historian

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During the last round of discussions, Cairo “had the feeling of having done everything possible to avoid a military operation [à Rafah] which everyone thinks will be a disaster”deciphers Timothy E. Kaldas. “But Israel shattered everything, increasing the risk of regional conflagration and prolonging the humanitarian catastrophe in a completely unnecessary way”, he judges. This failure also gave rise to “a broader concern, because there is no clear way out of conflict”points out the researcher. It is unclear what Israel would accept to end the war other than a total surrender by Hamas, which will not happen.”

In this context, while 600,000 Gazans have fled Rafah to the North since May 6 according to the UN, Egypt continues to increase diplomatic pressure on Israel. In mid-May, Cairo declared that it wanted to join the complaint for genocide filed against Israel by South Africa before the International Court of Justice. At the same time, officials told CNN and the Wall Street Journalon condition of anonymity, that Egypt was considering “degrade” its diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. As much “strong diplomatic signals” of “frustration” of Cairo, observes Timothy E. Kaldas.

Egypt, one of the driving forces of the Arab League, could also try to influence the other members of the organization to “to coerce Israel” to give up its operation in Rafah, says Thomas Vescovi. So far, Arab leaders have met twice. At a summit in Bahrain on Thursday, they called for a ceasefire and the deployment of peacekeepers to the “occupied Palestinian territories” by Israel.

“Egypt’s room for maneuver is limited. It has no interest in launching a military operation against Israel.”

Thomas Vescovi, historian

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Cairo “does not have the military means to enter into open conflict”confirms Timothy E. Kaldas, “and “will not take the risk of withdrawing from the Camp David agreements, when it is entirely dependent on international aid and income.” The same goes for Benjamin Netanyahu, believes the international relations expert. “If he took the reckless risk of conflict with Egypt, his coalition would risk collapsing and he could be removed from power”, he says. However, the Israeli Prime Minister, “who will have to answer for his responsibility in the attacks of October 7 after the war”is gambling on its political survival by leading this offensive. “He is convinced that the use of force will force Hamas and the countries of the region to accept his conditions, and thus save face internally, agrees Thomas Vescovi. His strategy is to buy time.”

This strategy, with its catastrophic human cost for Gazans, could have other consequences “unpredictable”however, warns Timothy E. Kaldas. “The question is not only what Egypt, or other governments in the region, are prepared to do: the war in Gaza could lead to tensions in Arab countries, if populations tire of passivity of their leaders, he concludes. This could prove dangerous for the stability of the entire region.”

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