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Gaza: Is Egypt building safe zone for Rafah Palestinians?

Gaza: Is Egypt building safe zone for Palestinians escaping Israeli attack on Rafah?
6 min read
16 February, 2024
Here's what we know about claims Egypt is preparing for forcible exodus of civilians as Israel considers invading Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians shelter.
Palestinian children play with wires in an empty area, as Palestinians who fled Israeli attacks and took refuge in Rafah try to continue their daily lives under difficult conditions in the area near the border wall with Egypt [Getty]

Egyptian engineering teams have begun new construction in the city of Rafah near the border with the Gaza Strip, sparking concerns among residents and raising questions about the prospect of forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza into the emerging buffer zone on the Egyptian side as Israel plans a ground attack on the Gazan side of Rafah.

Both the Egyptian side and Gazan sides are called Rafah [City], split by the Rafah crossing through which aid and people flow into Gaza, but is currently closed.

Is this confirmed?

The claim was first made bythe Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, which published images on Monday it said showed construction trucks and cranes working in the area and images of concrete barriers. 

Citing an unidentified source, the Sinai Foundation said that the construction work was intended to create a secured area in case of a mass exodus of Palestinians.

The New Arab was able to verify that new works are ongoing, based on satellite images obtained on 14 February 2024, in a previously unbuilt area, just on the border with Gaza (See file -- US Geological Survey).

The area which sits along the Sheikh Zuweid-Rafah Road some 3.5 kilometers west of the border with Gaza is a few kilometres away and distinct from another buffer zone that has been there for years, cleared during the Egyptian army's counter-insurgency operation against jihadist elements.

The work there started sometime between 4 and 9 February 2024. 

As of 14 February, the earthworks cover a surface area of about 4 km2. In the map provided by Sinai Foundation, the works are planned to cover a total surface area of about 20 km2.

Sources in northern Sinai who spoke to The New Arab and its sister Arabic publication Al-Araby al-Jadeed confirmed a claim by the Sinai Foundation that the works are being carried out by contractors close to the Egyptian government -- the Abnaa Sinai owned by Ibrahim al-Argani, commissioned by the army.

The construction company has been clearing demolished houses of local Sinai residents in Rafah who had been displaced during the country’s anti-ISIS operations.

Argany is known for having strong ties with the regime,  employing thousands of servicemen in recent years.

The sources said Egyptian military leaders have been visiting Rafah frequently in recent days, with aerial surveys using army helicopters.

The images and claims were also confirmed by Western news agencies and media, including Reuters and the Wall Street Journal, but a video published by the foundation could not be confirmed in whole.

Four sources told Reuters Egypt is preparing an area at the Gaza border which could accommodate Palestinians in case an Israeli offensive into Rafah prompts an exodus across the frontier, describing it as a contingency move by Cairo.

The sources said Egypt had begun preparing a desert area with some basic facilities which could be used to shelter Palestinians.

The Wall Street Journal, quoting anonymous Egyptian officials, described “an 8-square-mile (20-square-kilometer) walled enclosure” being built in the area that could accommodate over 100,000 people.

Officially, Egypt denies making any such preparations and Israel says it has no intention of deporting Palestinians from Gaza.

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Does this mean an Israeli attack on Rafah is imminent? 

Over 85 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million people have been displaced from their homes since Israel began its air and ground assault on Gaza on 7 October last year, also claiming the lives of 28,663 Palestinians, with a further 68,395 injured, according to official figures.

As many as 1.5 million of them could be sheltering in Rafah, having fled other areas of Gaza, with nowhere safe to go.

The reports of an Egyptian buffer zone intended to receive part of that displaced population are an ominous sign that at the very least, Cairo is expecting an Israeli ground attack to happen even as most countries of the world including the United States are warning against it.

Egypt has repeatedly raised the alarm over the possibility that Israel's Gaza offensive could displace Palestinians into Sinai - something Cairo says would be completely unacceptable.

The warnings have been echoed by other Arab states, notably Jordan, which borders the West Bank and took in many of the Palestinians displaced in 1948 and by the 1967 Middle East war, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel has said it will mount an offensive to take out Hamas's "last bastion" in Rafah, where well over 1 million Palestinians have sought sanctuary from its devastating Gaza offensive.

Israel said its army is drawing up a plan to evacuate civilians from Rafah to other parts of the Gaza Strip. But Israel denies it is attempting to push Palestinians into Sinai, yet ministers and officials have publicly supported the "voluntary resettlement" of Palestinians from Gaza.

Israel said it will coordinate with Egypt on Palestinian refugees and will find a way to not harm Egypt's interests, according to Israel's foreign minister Israel Katz on Friday.

"The state of Israel will have to deal with Rafah because we can't just leave Hamas there," Katz said on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

When asked where refugees in Rafah would go, he suggested Gaza's second city Khan Younis, but said that Israel would coordinate with Egypt to ensure Cairo's interests were not harmed. "We will coordinate with Egypt," he said.

How is the world reacting?

UN aid chief Martin Griffiths said on Thursday it was an "illusion" to think people in Gaza could evacuate to a safe place and warned of the possibility of Palestinians spilling into Egypt if Israel launches a military operation in Rafah.

He called this scenario "a sort of Egyptian nightmare".

The UN's High Commissioner for Refugees told Reuters on Friday that a spillover of refugees from Rafah into Egypt would be a disaster and that Egyptian authorities had made clear that Palestinians should be assisted in the enclave.

"It would be a disaster for the Palestinians ... a disaster for Egypt and a disaster for the future of peace," Filippo Grandi told Reuters on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

Egypt has framed its opposition to the displacement of Palestinians from Gaza as part of wider Arab rejection of any repeat of the "Nakba", or "catastrophe", when some 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes in the war surrounding Israel's creation in 1948.

US President Joe Biden has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel should not proceed with a Rafah operation without a plan to ensure the safety of the people sheltering there.

A US State Department spokesperson said: "The president has been clear that we do not support the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza. The US is not funding camps in Egypt for displaced Palestinians."

Egypt and Qatar are seeking a ceasefire before Israel proceeds with a full-scale ground incursion in Rafah

(With input from wire agencies)