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How will Egypt react to an Israeli ground invasion of Rafah?

The end of Camp David? How Egypt could react to an Israeli invasion of Rafah
6 min read
20 February, 2024
Analysis: Egypt has maintained that the mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza into Sinai is a red line that Israel must not cross.

Israeli forces launched heavy air attacks on Rafah last week, killing displaced Palestinians and pushing the fighting even closer to Egyptian territory.

The attacks on the supposed safe zone and the build-up of Israeli ground forces outside of Rafah have called into question whether Cairo will suspend the Camp David treaty, which saw Egypt become the first Arab country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

“I think that the situation is a real threat that could lead to actions that were unthinkable just a few months ago,” Giuseppe Dentice, head of the MENA desk at the Centre for International Studies, told The New Arab.

Domestically, it is too fraught a topic for Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to ignore. Rafah is an extremely sensitive area for Egypt. Under the revised terms of the Camp David treaty, Israeli forces are not allowed to enter the area, making the threat of a ground offensive on the so-called safe zone even more alarming to Egypt.

Egypt has repeatedly called for a peaceful solution to the violence since 7 October. The country has always upheld its pledges to the Camp David peace agreement and has not retaliated to Israeli threats to violate the treaty, but a suspension may be the only option if Israel continues its strategy.

“Disrupting the peace agreement may be a last resort for Egypt in the face of the genocide committed by Israel in Gaza, and pushing the path of displacing Palestinians from it, through a scorched earth policy, and making it an impossible place to live in,” Sherif Mohyeldeen, a specialist on Egypt and regional cross-border issues, told The New Arab.

Rafah is hosting an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced Palestinians as Israeli forces amass outside of the city threatening a ground invasion. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Rafah is the last stronghold of Hamas and his soldiers will remain in Gaza until all of Israel’s goals are achieved.

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Could Egypt suspend the peace treaty?

Last week’s deadly Israeli air attacks, which killed over 100 sheltering Palestinians, prompted Sisi to warn of "the danger of a military escalation in Rafah due to its 'catastrophic' consequences” during a phone call with French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

Egypt is horrified by the events, but suspending the peace treaty would irreversibly undermine hard-fought-for peace and Sisi is likely to explore other options first.

“There are many other options that Egypt may make, and they may be painful for Israel,” said Mohyeldeen. “Including Egypt joining South Africa’s lawsuit in the International Court of Justice, and filing a case against Netanyahu and the Israeli war government in the International Criminal Court.”

Netanyahu made his intentions to disregard the peace agreement clear when he told reporters in late December: “The Philadelphi Corridor... must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek”.

Rafah is hosting an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced Palestinians as Israel prepares to launch a ground invasion. [Getty]

Israel is blatantly violating the terms of the treaty, so Egypt could potentially suspend the security annex of the peace agreement, Mohyeldeen explained.

Cairo could announce "the suspension of the security annex of the peace agreement, in response to Israel’s violations, in a way that allows the deployment of additional Egyptian military forces on the border in Sinai without coordination or waiting for approval from the Israeli side”.

The Egyptian foreign minister stated Cairo’s position at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, claiming Israel was told: "The Rafah issue is a red line. The displacement of residents is intolerable. Its consequences pose a great threat to Egypt's national security and strain our relations with Israel”.

Cairo's fears

“The biggest concern for Cairo is that Israel can force more or less one million Palestinians into Sinai,” Dentice told TNA. “An influx of over one million refugees would create devastating consequences for Egypt on a political, security, economic and humanitarian level.”

Days after Israel’s attacks on Rafah, reports in the international press claimed Egypt is building an area to accommodate over 100,000 Palestinian refugees in Sinai. Egyptian officials subsequently denied this, saying the area under construction is a logistics hub to store aid deliveries to Gaza. 

Egypt’s State Information Service chief Diaa Rashwan emphasised that the government rejects “any forced or voluntary displacement of our Palestinian brothers from the Gaza strip to outside it, especially to Egyptian lands, because that would certainly lead to the liquidation of the Palestinian cause”. 

Any incursion of Israeli forces onto Egyptian territory may also inspire Egyptians to take matters into their own hands and defend their land, in defiance of orders from the Egyptian regime. 

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“Perhaps one of the most prominent fears of the Egyptian regime is the potential effects of the Israeli genocide in Gaza, and its offensive in Rafah, on the Egyptian internal front, from severely weakening the strong image of the Sisi regime, after his warnings from the first days of the genocide in October of reaching such a scenario of displacing the Palestinians to Sinai,” said Mohyeldeen.

This could potentially "weaken military control over individuals and forces, which may result in skirmishes and military strikes between some Egyptian and Israeli forces, without complete submission to the hierarchy of command and military orders”, he added.

In the past year, there have been several solitary Egyptian attacks on Israelis. The day after the 7 October Hamas attacks, an Egyptian policeman shot dead two Israeli tourists and in June an Egyptian conscript killed three Israeli soldiers near the border.

“This is what happened previously last summer, when Egyptian recruit Mohamed Salah stormed the border and clashed with an Israeli military patrol, causing deaths and injuries among their ranks.” 

Rafah and Sinai are extremely sensitive domestic political issues for Egypt. [Getty]

Support from the international community

Sisi has chosen to address any solution through diplomatic means and has repeatedly expressed Cairo’s desire to solve the violence through peaceful cooperation, which has been supported by the EU, US, and Arab states. 

The Egyptian regime has hosted a series of peace talks bringing together leaders from Israel's security forces and Palestinian representatives. If Egypt continues to receive support from the international community, as per its current strategy, a suspension of the peace treaty may not be necessary.

Following the attacks on Rafah, Israel faced criticism from US President Joe Biden, who told reporters, “Many people there have been displaced - displaced multiple times … and now they’re packed into Rafah - exposed and vulnerable. They need to be protected”.

During Macron’s call with Sisi last week, the two leaders agreed cooperation was required to ensure "a stop to the bloodshed” and to alleviate the human suffering in the Gaza Strip.

“Egypt can leverage Israel’s attacks on Rafah to gain support from its allies,” Dentice said. “For Egypt, diplomatic activity is the only reasonable solution to the conflict.”

Lara Gibson is a Cairo-based journalist closely following Egypt's economic and political developments.

Follow her on Twitter: @lar_gibson