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Philadelphi Corridor: A tipping point in Egypt-Israel ties?

Philadelphi Corridor: How Gaza's border could be a tipping point in Egypt-Israel ties
6 min read
22 January, 2024
Analysis: Israel's plan to take full control of the Philadelphi Corridor and cut off Gaza from Egypt has sounded alarm bells in Cairo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the world in December that the war would not be finished until Gaza is cut off from Egypt and Israel has full control of the border, sounding alarm bells in Cairo.

The Egyptian regime has been hesitant to take firm action since 7 October, but the threat to the Camp David treaty has severely angered Israel's ally and neighbour.

“The Israeli pressure and Netanyahu's statements over the Philadelphi Corridor are alarming to Egypt from different aspects, as from a popular level, this is a red line that Israel might risk bringing Egypt to the historical conflict again,” Sherif Mohyeldeen, a specialist on Egypt and regional cross-border issues, told The New Arab.

Egypt has insisted it will not take Gazan refugees, out of concern that they would never be allowed to return and its sovereignty would be impaired. But Israel has repeatedly said in post-war plans that Egypt will play a role in accepting refugees and this narrative has escalated following Israel’s threats to take control of the border.

“The Egyptian regime is very worried about the potential influx of Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egypt, which is in the background of Israel’s threats to retake control of the corridor,” Ewan Stein, Professor of international relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, told The New Arab

It would not be Israel’s first show of disregard for Egypt in this campaign. First Israel leaked plans to send Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Sinai, then bombed the Rafah Crossing to prevent inflows of aid. But Netanyahu’s plans would take the breach to a new level.

Netanyahu made his intentions to circumvent the peace agreement 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”.

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Under the Camp David Accords, signed in 1978, the Philadelphi Corridor is a demilitarised zone. Since 2005, Egypt has exercised full control over the axis. If Israel’s military moved into the zone, this would violate the treaty and irreversibly shift dynamics in the Arab world.

According to Mostafa Kamal El-Sayed, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University, the move would have wider implications in the region.

“From a broader point of view, this shows that Israel does not respect the peace treaties it signed with Arab countries.” 

Egypt has insisted it will not take Gazan refugees out of concern that they would never be allowed to return and its sovereignty would be impaired. [Getty]

Expected reaction from Cairo

Since the fighting broke out on 7 October, President Sisi has repeatedly called for a ceasefire and urged regional peace, making any military action unlikely even if Israel were to enter the corridor.

“Egypt’s scope for manoeuvres is quite limited,” Stein told TNA. “The Egyptian government has very close military and security ties to Israel. I think it's highly unlikely that there would be any kind of force majeure that would precipitate an Egyptian military response.”

According to Matteo Colombo, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute, Israel is banking on Egypt’s inaction as it contemplates invading the crossing.

“Israel knows that Egypt cannot really do anything if Israel moves into the Philadelphi crossing. Of course they will complain but Egypt will not take action. Israel may take a calculated risk and claim it’s for security reasons.”

Regardless of Egypt’s level-headedness on the matter, such an affront by Israel would force the wider world - and even Israel’s staunchest allies - to sit up and take note.

“The Egyptian government would not risk destabilising the region and enlarging the conflict in Gaza,” Sayed believes. “But at the same time, Egypt will not accept this situation to happen with Israel, controlling the Philadelphi Corridor. The Egyptian government is counting on pressure from the US to stop Israel from going along this line.” 

A further disintegration of diplomatic achievements between Egypt and Israel would be a disaster for the US, as the two nations are its close allies in the region and US foreign policy has long pushed for peace between the neighbours.

“It would be extremely embarrassing for the US if Israel moves into the Philadelphi Corridor and violates the [Camp David] peace treaty, because the US is party to the treaty,” Stein said.

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Importance of the peace treaty

When Egypt signed the Camp David treaty, the nation paved the way for normalisation of ties between Israel and Arab nations and in the following decades the treaty has allowed Egypt to maintain a role as key peacemaker in the region, as well as receive much-needed economic incentives.

“The treaty enables Egypt to claim so much military aid from the United States and what secures Egypt as an indispensable ally for the US,” Stein told TNA.

“Egypt is the second top country in the world in receiving aid from the US with $1.3 billion in US military assistance and $250 million in economic assistance,” Mohyeldeen said. 

Israel equally gained many advantages from the agreement, ranging from peace to trade and a potential breach would irrevocably harm its standing with the Arab world. 

“It was a major gain for Israel to gain peace with Israel by signing the Camp David treaty,” El-Sayed said. “Now I think the Israelis are sacrificing the advantages of peace with the Arab world’s largest country. I believe it’s short-sighted of Israel to threaten full control over the Philadelphia corridor.” 

Israel has repeatedly bombed the Rafah crossing with Egypt since launching its war on Gaza. [Getty]

He believes it is also an unequal treaty, in the sense that it gave more to Israel than Egypt. 

“The treaty put severe restrictions on Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai and that was not matched by similar commitments on the part of Israel.”

Israel’s statements in recent months have suggested it no longer values Egypt’s commitment to maintaining ties, Mohyeldeen said. 

“Even from the Sisi regime in which the closest ties to Israel have been reached, the Israeli statements are signalling that it will never be enough for Israel, despite Sisi's campaign since 2013 against smuggling tunnels with Gaza, in which around 3,000 tunnels have been shut down, and Sisi's sticking to the Israeli policy of forcing a siege on Gaza with so little aid and goods to pass by the Rafah crossing.”

The lack of Israeli recognition for Egypt’s efforts has not been lost on Cairo. Egypt’s State Information Service issued a statement: “Egypt views Netanyahu's remarks as a direct accusation that they are enabling or allowing weapons smuggling to Gaza's resistance groups”.

Public opinion

Across Egypt, there is widespread anger towards Israel and support for Palestinians affected by the violence in Gaza, which could impact the regime’s response. Egyptians have been vocally supportive of the Palestinian cause across social media and in wider society many have expressed concern about the possibility of Israel controlling the entrance into Sinai.

“The government has to take into consideration the public opinion to a certain extent,” Colombo said. “There is some sort of push from the bottom up for Egypt to limit its collaboration with Israel as much as possible.”

According to Mohyeldeen, Sinai is the most sensitive area in Egypt, as it has witnessed historically tens of thousands of martyrs defending Egyptian sovereignty over it.

“It is not just a border issue, it is a national, cultural, economic, and social issue, and Egyptians will never give it up.”

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

Follow her on Twitter: @lar_gibson