Egypt – Caught Between Rafah and Sudan Part 1 (of a 2 Part Series)


   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent statement concerning the plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah and launch a ground operation to eliminate Hamas brigades in the city wasn’t received well by the Egyptian authorities. In fact, Israel’s military scenario has jeopardized the Camp David Peace Accords between Cairo and Tel Aviv. For the first time since they were signed in 1979, the agreements are in danger of being suspended. 

The Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation announced that Cairo had threatened to suspend the 1979 bilateral peace treaty if the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a ground offensive in Rafah, which is located on the Egypt-Gaza border. The position of the Egyptian authorities was not expressed publicly, but is quite legitimate since the invasion would be a direct violation of the terms of the Camp David Accords. 

Egypt was the first Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel, having previously been a fierce enemy of the Jewish state. In September 1977, a few years before the Camp David Accords, Egypt was one of the eight countries that signed the so-called Khartoum Resolution, famous for the “Three Noes” (“No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”).

The Camp David Accords

The historic meetings between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin took place in September 1978 at the US president’s Camp David residence near Washington, D.C. The meetings were held under the auspices of US President Jimmy Carter and concluded with the signing of two documents intended to establish peaceful coexistence between the two nations. 

Six months later, on March 26, 1979, Sadat and Begin signed the Egypt–Israel peace treaty in Washington, ending the war between the two nations and establishing diplomatic and economic relations. According to the Camp David Accords, Egypt regained control over the Sinai Peninsula. In most Arab countries, the treaty was extremely unpopular. The Muslim world believed that Sadat had put Egypt’s interests above the unity of Arab nations and had betrayed the pan-Arabic ideas of his predecessor. 

FILE PHOTO. Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat, US President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin sit together in the sunshine outside the White House on March 26, 1979, ready to sign the peace treaty based on the Camp David Accords of September 1978.

 Sadat seemed proud of his achievement, and declared that he was able to establish peace and regain lost territories without shedding a drop of blood. However, local Islamic groups did not forgive him for establishing peace with Israel, and on October 6, 1981, during a victory parade, Sadat was assassinated by conspirators from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Jamaa al-Islamiya Islamic fundamentalist groups. 

The Terms of the Agreement

The Camp David Peace Accords clearly stipulated the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory of the Sinai Peninsula and regulated any military actions in the area, which was divided into four military zones:

 Zone A extends from left to right, from the east coast of the Gulf of Suez to the line marked “A”.  Egypt is allowed to deploy one mechanized infantry division with a total of 22,000 troops in this zone.

 Zone B is located between lines “A” and “B”. Egyptian border guard units, consisting of four battalions equipped with light weapons and vehicles, are located in this zone. These units provide assistance to the civilian police.

 Zone C stretches from the line marked “B” in the west to the national border and the Gulf of Aqaba in the east. Only international UN forces and Egyptian civilian police armed with light weapons can be located in this zone. 

 Zone D is confined to the national border and the line marked “D” to the west. Up to four Israeli infantry battalions with military equipment, as well as fortifications and UN observation forces can be deployed in this zone.

 Since the signing of the accords in 1979, the distribution of forces in zones A and B hasn’t changed, but the rules regarding zones C and D have been adjusted.

Changes and Amendments

In 2005, Israel withdrew troops from the Gaza Strip and dismantled Israeli settlements there. At the time, Cairo and Tel Aviv signed the Philadelphi Accord, which stipulated that for the first time since 1979, Egypt was allowed to deploy 750 lightly-armed border guard soldiers on its side of the Rafah border, along a narrow 14-meter-long strip of land located in Zone D, and known as the Philadelphi Corridor or the Salah al-Din Corridor. 

However, this agreement was not an amendment to the 1979 treaty. The Palestinian side of the border was controlled by the Palestinian Authority until Hamas came to power in 2007. The Rafah crossing was jointly controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. It provided limited access for civilians and was used for the delivery of aid to Gaza. After Hamas came to power in 2007, both Egypt and Israel closed the border with Gaza. 

In November 2021, Egypt and Israel agreed to add an amendment to the Camp David Accords which would allow Egypt to increase its military presence in the Rafah area. At the time, Cairo was fighting against terrorist groups in North Sinai. However, the exact number of Egyptian troops and military equipment which were allowed to enter the region was not disclosed.

Zone D: Why an Israeli invasion would contradict the terms of the Camp David Accords

Most of the residents displaced from the central and northern parts of Gaza are currently located in Zone D, on the Palestinian side of Rafah.  In this area, Israel can have infantry battalions of up to 4,000 soldiers which are stationed not only along the 14km-long border between Egypt and Gaza but are dispersed throughout Zone D, from the Mediterranean Sea to Eilat. Israel cannot expand this zone, even for training purposes, since this would be a violation of the terms of the peace treaty.

For this reason, the IDF’s potential ground invasion of Rafah directly contradicts the terms of the Camp David Accords. The city, located on the border between Egypt and Gaza, and divided into two parts (the Egyptian and Palestinian side) is part of Zone D. Increasing the IDF’s combat potential in this area without coordinating it with Egypt would be a direct violation of the agreements.

Israel’s plans to evacuate the displaced people are also questionable. Egypt will not allow the Palestinians to leave Gaza. Since the beginning of the war in October 2023, Cairo has repeatedly stressed that it refuses to accept refugees.

Currently, only Palestinians who are seriously ill or wounded, as well as orphans and foreign citizens are allowed to cross into Egypt. Since October, Egypt has fortified the wall on the border with Gaza and also established a field hospital in the village of Sheikh Zuweid, near Rafah.

Construction Work in Rafah

 Two weeks ago, construction work started on the Egyptian side of the city of Rafah – the ground is being leveled, and concrete is being unloaded at the site. Due to the secrecy surrounding this construction work, major media outlets have assumed that Egypt is building a buffer zone intended to house the Palestinians during the IDF’s potential ground operation.

Sources from the Sinai tribes report that the construction work is being carried out with the help of engineering equipment belonging to the company Abnaa Sinai (“Sons of Sinai”) owned by Egyptian businessman Ibrahim al-Arjani, who is affiliated with the Egyptian General Intelligence Service. Heavy machinery is clearing large strips of land in Rafah under the surveillance of military forces associated with the Union of Sinai Tribes, headed by al-Arjani. Egypt also started the construction of enclosed areas with 7-meter-high concrete walls. 

Incidentally, in the past few days, Egyptian military leaders have frequently visited the province of North Sinai, and in particular the city of Rafah and helicopters belonging to the Egyptian Armed Forces and international peacekeeping forces have been regularly spotted near the Philadelphi Axis. Egyptian and foreign officials have also frequented the area and inspected the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. 

The Reaction of the International Community

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and especially in its southern part, has been getting worse. About 1.5 million displaced Palestinians currently reside in the Rafah field camps, while the northern and central parts of Gaza are lightly occupied. The Palestinians are cut off from the outside world and depend on limited humanitarian aid. In light of this, Netanyahu’s plan has been strongly condemned by the international community.

 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called the possibility of a full-scale Israeli invasion of Rafah “terrifying.” South Africa urged the International Court of Justice to consider measures that would protect the Palestinian population from a possible Israeli offensive on Rafah, but the ICJ declined the request. 

Further developments may not only threaten the economic relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv, but the two countries may also find themselves on the brink of war. The world’s media is actively discussing this subject, with many outlets reporting that in recent weeks Egypt – which has the strongest army among the Arab nations – has sent additional military equipment to the border with Gaza in order to increase security – about 40 tanks have already been transported to the border area, and there are also rumors about the deployment of missile defense systems.

If the IDF indeed invades Rafah, Egypt’s reaction may be unpredictable. Although Cairo had fought for the rights of the Palestinian people and the preservation of their territory, in recent years it has maintained the status of a mediator in the negotiations between Israel and Hamas. However, the present situation is extremely dangerous – and while Egypt was the first Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel, it may also become the first to cut these ties.

As Israel’s brutal military assault on Gaza escalates, reports continue to swirl about a big Egyptian trade-off in the works: the absorption of large numbers of displaced Palestinians from the Strip in exchange for easing Cairo’s massive debt load – which surpasses $160 billion. Yet more than four months after the war’s onset, Egyptian parliamentarian Mustafa Bakri says President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has rejected $250 billion from foreign states as payment to allow Gazans to flood the Sinai. 

Despite Cairo’s repeated rejection of forcibly transferring Palestinians into Egyptian territory, ongoing fears of a potential influx of Gazans fleeing Israeli atrocities, the viability of their return, and the destabilization of the Sinai border have continued to beset the Egyptian government. The only beneficiaries to gain from the displacement of Palestinians, beyond Gaza’s confines is Israel and the US.

As the conflict grows in both ferocity and breadth, it has become evident that for many Arab leaders, the Palestinian cause has become a secondary concern, such as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – currently view Palestine as an obstacle to their diplomatic flexibility. These are those nations that have sold out the Arab and Palestinian cause in order to gain financial and economic benefits.

The Plan: Cash for Displacement

As Israel advances militarily into Gaza’s southernmost territory, Egypt has begun constructing a closed zone on its border with Gaza – ostensibly aimed at sheltering Palestinians fleeing the anticipated Israeli attack on Rafah. The images show workers using heavy machinery to install concrete barriers and security towers around a strip of land on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing.

There is little doubt that the mass displacement of Palestinians poses a threat to Egypt’s national security in the long term, and so Egypt faces a dilemma: Either continue to reject displacement or accept a mass exodus to Sinai – even temporarily – in exchange for economic incentives that include offsetting a major part of its accumulated debt, which also threatens the Egyptian economy significantly and, by extension, its social cohesion. 

On this issue, Egyptian infrastructure can carry half of its current population, and this “infrastructure deficit” is hindering the economy. Instead of growing, the economy is stagnating. Add to this, the servicing costs of this foreign debt is putting its leadership into a bind – either play ball with the foreign debt holders in accepting the offer by Israel, or see the economy in free fall, and its exchange rate being subject to manipulation, which will weaken the currency, thus creating additional problems that Egypt is in no way of solving in the short-term.

Saudis and Emiratis buy Egypt’s Sovereignty

Riyadh’s sudden eagerness to bolster economic ties with Cairo is palpable. With unprecedented directives from both governments, mutual investments are set to soar, with Saudi Arabia aiming to ramp up trade to $100 billion. 

Recent collaborations include a $4 billion deal with Saudi-listed ACWA Power for the Green Hydrogen project. Moreover, strategic initiatives like the memorandum of understanding between the Egyptian Ministry of Military Production and the Saudi General Authority for Military Industries and agreements in petroleum and mineral resources signal deepening economic integration.

Ongoing negotiations between Cairo and Abu Dhabi to develop a substantial tract of land along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, potentially valued at $22 billion, could be a game-changer for Egypt’s beleaguered economy. 

The proposed contract’s value encompasses a significant portion of the Egyptian government’s external debt due in 2024, totaling $29.229 billion. This includes interest payments totaling $6.312 billion and debt installments amounting to $22.917 billion. Just last week, Abu Dhabi transferred $11 billion to Egypt as a part of this deal, but in actual reality, it was given as a grant.

Economic Lifeline or Political Liability?

There is no doubt that the Saudi–Emirati interest in investing in Egypt is mainly driven by these two countries’ fears of Egypt’s economic collapse, which could destabilize a key, friendly Arab state in the region. 

But information has surfaced that Abu Dhabi’s offer to Egypt now tie the displacement of Gazans to a proposal to alleviate Cairo’s staggering debt burden. The reported US offer to wipe out $160 billion of Egyptian debt in exchange for hosting 100,000 Gazan refugees has a dangerous historical precedent. In 1991, Washington forgave Egypt’s debt in return for its support of the US-led coalition against Iraq.

Egypt’s monumental national debt ranks second globally in risk of default after Ukraine. Notably, Arab countries hold a significant portion of Egypt’s debt, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone accounting for approximately 20.3 percent. 

Egypt’s looming economic collapse is not in the interest of either the Arab states due to the country’s strategic significance in the Arab world and North Africa – hence, the resolution of the Palestinian issue emerges as a shared priority among Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the US.

In the long term, the establishment of a Palestinian state poses a threat to efforts aimed at permanently extinguishing the Palestinian issue. Thus, the prospect of displacing Palestinians to Egypt, despite the formidable obstacles, remains a viable strategy for Israel and Abu Dhabi.

As geopolitical interests intertwine with economic imperatives, the fate of millions of Palestinians hangs in the balance, subject to the whims of power politics and strategic calculus.

The Covert War between Egypt & Israel

After Iraq was destroyed in 1991 (the 2nd Gulf War) and its military capability was weakened, Israel then turned its attention to its most dangerous geopolitical foe – Egypt, which is the largest Arab country in the Middle East. It also has a more powerful army than Israel, but it has been muzzled and bribed by the US.

Beginning in 1992, the Mossad began to target Egypt’s military capability. The full story is told in the Geopolitics of Egypt.  Full diplomatic relations were established on January 26, 1980, and the formal exchange of ambassadors took place one month later. Egypt has an embassy in Tel Aviv and a consulate in Eilat. Israel has an embassy in Cairo and a consulate in Alexandria. Their shared border has two official crossings, one at Taba and one at Nitzana. The crossing at Nitzana is for commercial and tourist traffic only. The two countries’ borders also meet at the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea.

Peace between Egypt and Israel has lasted for more than forty years and Egypt has become an important strategic partner of Israel. Nevertheless, the relationship is sometimes described as a “cold peace”, with many in Egypt skeptical about its effectiveness. According to the 2019–2020 survey, 13% of Egyptians support diplomatic recognition of Israel while 85% oppose. The Arab-Israeli conflict kept relations cool and anti-Israeli incitement is prevalent in the Egyptian media. Although diplomatic relations were established in 1980, the Egyptian ambassador to Israel was recalled between 1982 and 1988 and again between 2001 and 2005 during the Second Intifada.

 The key to military dominance in the Middle East, especially for Israel, is air power. For this reason, we find that Israel has the most powerful air-force in the region. It could not afford any Arab nation to have an effective, well-trained and professional pilots and technicians. Pilots are the key. Many of these pilots are trained in the US, as part of the annual $2 billion US-military aid package with Egypt. One such group of pilots had completed their training, and was returning home to Egypt. On this flight, there were a large group of them. This key fact was covered up by Washington.

On July 17, 1996, a Boeing 747 exploded in midair off the coast of Long Island. The flight from New York City to Rome with a stop in Paris broke apart and fell into the ocean below. The 230 people onboard Trans World Airlines Flight 800 perished. On the day of the crash, witnesses said they saw a streak of light near the plane and one or more explosions near the aircraft. Speculation bloomed that the crash had been touched off by a proximity-triggered rocket, missile.

Also, a full-page ad appeared in the Washington Post on Aug 22, declaring “We Saw TWA Flight 800 Shot down by Missiles, and We Won’t Be Silenced Any Longer.” There was radar data that included information about surface ships in the area where the TWA plane went down, including one vessel that was 5 kms from the explosion, which was moving away from the explosion at a very fast speed of 30 knots towards the Whiskey 105 military operations area.   A nearby SwissAir flight made an emergency landing after it narrowly missed being hit by missiles. As to who benefits from this, is obvious-Israel, and it had help from the US military.

In 2003, Egyptian Air Force UAVs entered Israeli airspace and overflew the nuclear research facilities at Nahal Sorek and Palmachim Airbase. Israel threatened to shoot the drones down. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011, part of the Arab Spring, led to fears in Israel about the future of the treaty.  Yet Israeli-Egyptian relations reached their lowest level since the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty.

 During the final years of the Mubarak administration, the leading Egyptian official conducting contacts with Israel had been the head of Egyptian intelligence Omar Suleiman. Suleiman was ousted from power at the same time as Mubarak, and Israel was said to have very few channels of communication open with Egypt during the events of 2011. Egypt undermined the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip by opening the Rafah border to persons in May 2011.

In the 2011 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Egypt, thousands of Egyptian demonstrators broke into the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Friday, September 9. The Egyptian police stationed at the site attempted to bar entry, firing tear gas into the crowd. After demonstrators entered the first section of the building, the Israeli ambassador and the staff of the embassy were evacuated by Egyptian commandos. After the attack, Israel flew out the Israeli ambassador and about 85 other diplomats and their family members. Following the attack, the Egyptian army declared a state of emergency in the country. Egyptian officials condemned the attack and said that the events were part of an external conspiracy to hurt the stability and foreign relations of Egypt. The story continues in Part 2…..

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