Are the days of a largely demilitarised Sinai over?
Israel’s vow to seize the Philadelphi Corridor buffer zone demarcating the Gaza Strip and Egypt has led to some strong statements from Cairo.
Egyptian officials warn such a move could critically undermine the 1979 peace treaty between them, which, among other things, successfully demilitarised most of Sinai and established decades of peace following several deadly wars.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced in December his intention to take control over the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow 14-kilometre-long strip of land covering the entire Gaza-Egypt border.
"Egypt has a priority to see the war come to an end without spillovers into Egypt itself"
Israel contends it needs to control the corridor to prevent Hamas from smuggling in weaponry. Egypt fears such a move would result in Gazan refugees crossing the border into Sinai, something it has been highly sensitive about since the current Israel-Hamas war began in October.
“Israel has no right to take the Philadelphi corridor, and Egypt is right to object,” Imad K. Harb, Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, told The New Arab. “The problem, however, is Egypt’s seeming acceptance of what Israel wants and desires.”
Egypt is in a weaker position vis-à-vis Israel and isn’t likely to mount a direct challenge against Israel if it decides to take over the area.
“Remember that Egypt has done nothing about Israel’s bombing of the Rafah crossing, which is under Egyptian-Palestinian control, and in fact acquiesced to Israel’s demand to inspect trucks entering Gaza by sending them to Karm Abu-Salim crossing first,” Harb said.
There is presently an estimated one million Palestinians, many of them displaced from elsewhere in the narrow coastal enclave, in the southern border town of Rafah.
According to Israel’s Army Radio, Israel has promised Egypt its forces will not move into the city until Gazans there can first relocate to other areas, to ensure there won’t be a mass exodus into Sinai. Israel has also reportedly informed Egypt it “will not remain in the area permanently”.
Ryan Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at the risk intelligence company RANE, doubts any Israeli seizure of Philadelphi would necessarily “jeopardise” the 1979 treaty since Cairo depends on Washington for aid and military hardware.
On the other hand, he anticipates such a move would certainly “strain relations” and put Cairo in a position where it would need to become “more rhetorically hostile to Israel” to “offset public backlash” domestically.
Even before this current Gaza war, there were several indications Egypt has been gradually remilitarising Sinai with Israel’s discreet approval.
Under the 1979 treaty, Israel agreed to return sovereignty of Sinai, which it had occupied since June 1967, back to Egypt in return for Cairo agreeing to demilitarise large parts of the sparsely populated but strategically important peninsula.
Egypt could deploy specific numbers of military forces and equipment in Sinai depending on the designated zone. For example, in Zone A, east of the Suez Canal, Egypt could maintain a force not exceeding 22,000 military personnel and a few hundred tanks and artillery pieces.
In Zone B, in the peninsula’s centre, it could only deploy 4,000 troops, and in Zone C, which borders Israel, Cairo could only deploy police.
There have been notable exceptions made over the past decade. Egypt has been fighting an Islamist insurgency in Sinai, which includes a branch of the infamous Islamic State (IS), since the early 2010s.
Israel covertly supported this war and did not oppose Egypt’s gradual re-establishment of a military presence in Sinai. Cairo negotiated with Israel and the US for permission to deploy forces in Zone C.
As part of a covert campaign approved by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Israel even carried out over 100 airstrikes against the Sinai militants in 2016-17.
"It's unclear if Cairo will feel compelled to further increase its military presence in the region in response to developments in Gaza"
In Zone B, notable activity was observed at the Bir Gifgafah Airbase around that period. For example, in 2018, two AT-802 strike aircraft were sighted there. This followed sightings of Egypt’s Chinese-made Wing Loong drones at the facility in November 2016 and February 2017.
A new hangar was also constructed at the base as part of a renovation program, suggesting Egypt had plans for a long-term presence.
Other satellite images have shown ammunition bunkers and hardened aircraft shelters which, according to one analysis, are capable of “servicing half a squadron of the Egyptian Air Force’s F-16s”.
It’s unclear if Cairo will feel compelled to further increase its military presence in the region in response to developments in Gaza.
Egypt refused an Israeli request for permission to send its military into the Philadelphi Corridor in December, wary that such a move would trigger an inflow of Gaza refugees into Sinai.
“I don’t think Egypt will carry out much of a build-up in the Sinai unless they believe that the war is going to cause a humanitarian spillover (like refugees trying to breach the border) and/or if militants like Hamas appear likely to move into the Sinai,” Bohl told The New Arab.
“In that case, they’d like to go through Israel to negotiate exemptions from the treaty for extra troops, like they did during the Sinai ISIS campaign,” he said.
Bohl believes Israel “will allow Egypt to carry out a military build-up to counter refugees and militancy in the area as they move into the Rafah area”.
"Israel is not afraid of an Egyptian forceful response; those days are long gone. Besides, the Egyptian Army has been co-opted and will not voice much objection to what Sisi decides"
Harb of the Arab Center Washington DC similarly believes “American mediation” could see Egypt turning a “blind eye” to an Israeli takeover of Philadelphi “in exchange for a modification in the terms of the 1979 treaty such that it is allowed to increase its forces in zones A and B but not in C”.
“Israel is not afraid of an Egyptian forceful response; those days are long gone,” Harb said. “Besides, the Egyptian Army has been co-opted and will not voice much objection to what Sisi decides.”
The 1979 treaty established decades of cold peace between the two neighbours and proved durable during low points in relations. It will likely endure the current disagreements over Gaza.
Bohl observes that while Egypt’s “grassroots relationship” with Israel is at the lowest in decades, state-to-state relations “remain functional”.
He also contends they are still probably much better than the brief period in 2012-13 when Cairo was under the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, which Sisi toppled in the July 2013 army coup.
If that government were in power today, it would undoubtedly have taken a much stronger stance against Israel’s Gaza campaign.
“Egypt has a priority to see the war come to an end without spillovers into Egypt itself and certainly wants to see an end to Houthi attacks that are driving down traffic in the Red Sea,” Bohl said.
“But Cairo is not wholly blaming Israel for these factors and is trying to remain productive and constructive with Israel to de-escalate the situation.”
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon