Egypt Faces Hard Choices After Israeli Seizure of Gaza’s Southern Border

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel announced plans late last year to occupy a sensitive corridor of land in the Gaza Strip, along the border with Egypt, the response from Cairo was public, explicit and ominous.

“It must be strictly emphasized that any Israeli move in this direction will lead to a serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations,” the Egyptian government said in a statement in English in January, weeks after Mr. Netanyahu announced plans to occupy the so-called Philadelphi Corridor. Egypt said that an Israeli military presence there would violate the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

This week, the Israeli military announced that it had seized “tactical control” of the corridor. Yet despite the Egyptian government facing domestic pressure to take a harsher stance on Israel following its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, there has been no public Egyptian comment on the seizure of the corridor.

The silence may be a reflection of the dilemma Egypt finds itself in after nearly eight months of war in Gaza.

Egypt and Israel view their relationship as a cornerstone of their national security, according to former Israeli and Egyptian officials, making it unlikely the Egyptian government would take substantial steps against Israel. Peace between Egypt and Israel has been an anchor of Middle East stability for 45 years.

Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat, said in an interview Thursday that Egypt has hewed to a doctrine of keeping the relationship with Israel stable and protecting it “from the inevitable crises that come from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“Egypt has been consistent in trying to shield this relationship and minimize the impact of the conflict,” Mr. Fishere said.

The Egyptian economy, fragile even before the war, has been hit by a collapse in traffic through the Suez Canal, losing billions of dollars in revenue because of ships diverted by Houthi attacks in or near the Red Sea.

Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is alarmed by the prospect of Gazan refugees streaming across its border, is sensitive to the outrage in Egypt and across the Arab world to Israel’s bloody Gaza campaign, and is wary of the influence of Islamist groups like Hamas. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that Mr. el-Sisi ousted from power in a 2013 coup.

While expressing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Egypt’s government has also cracked down on dissent at home. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, 120 people have been detained against the backdrop of pro-Palestinian protests in the country, of whom around 30 were ultimately released.

The Israeli military has said it advanced into the border zone in an attempt to choke off Hamas’s ability to smuggle munitions into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Egypt has strenuously rejected that claim, saying that over the past decade it has destroyed 1,500 tunnels and fortified the wall between Gaza and Egypt.

Israel’s move into the corridor this week was part of the Israeli offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which has prompted more than one million Palestinians, most of them already displaced from their homes, to flee the city, according to the United Nations.

Former enemies who fought several wars from 1948 to 1973, Israel and Egypt have clashed diplomatically over the Israeli campaign in Gaza, particularly over Israel’s Rafah offensive. But Egyptian and Israeli authorities now coordinate closely on security, with defense officials regularly meeting in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

“The security people will keep talking to the security people,” Mr. Fishere said. “The border will be managed jointly, and the communication continues. Both sides know that it’s in their interest.”

Even so, those ties are now being put under considerable strain.

In early May, Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing, a vital portal for food and other goods, and it has been closed since then. Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian officials have wrangled over who is to blame for the closure and how to resume operations there.

Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster, reported on Thursday night that Israel and Egypt had agreed in principle to reopen the crossing, but the most fundamental question, who would operate it on the Gaza side, remained unanswered. The report could not immediately be confirmed.

Moreover, analysts say the prospect of Israeli forces conducting intense military operations so close to Egyptian soil has worried Egyptian and Israeli officials, who prefer to keep their militaries as separate as possible.

On Monday, at least one Egyptian soldier was killed in a shooting incident with Israeli forces near the Rafah crossing — the kind of clash that could inflame public opinion. Both sides say they are investigating the incident, and Egypt’s government and its tightly-controlled new media have downplayed it.

Egyptian officials also warned for months against Israel’s military offensive in Rafah, saying it could be catastrophic for civilians in Gaza.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said one of Egypt’s key concerns was that Israeli operations could prompt Gazans to flood across the border. As long as that prospect remains distant, whatever discontent Israel’s operation in the Philadelphi Corridor stirs in Egypt can likely be managed, said Mr. Shaked.

“Both Israel and Egypt understand their true interests,” he added. “There’s tension, disappointment and frustrations on both sides — but they are trying to keep those under the table.”

Israeli military officials have generally shied away from appearing to accuse Egypt of failing to crack down on cross-border smuggling, which some analysts called an attempt to avoid damaging the sensitive and important ties between the two countries.

On Wednesday night, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman, declined to explicitly confirm that Israeli forces had uncovered cross-border tunnels in the corridor. But an Israeli military official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity to comply with military protocol, said that troops had identified at least 20 tunnels running from Gaza into Egypt.

One of the tunnel networks in the area — an entrance to which lay 100 yards from the Rafah crossing — sprawled for nearly a mile underground, including a room intended as a hide-out for militants, Admiral Hagari said. Israeli forces demolished the tunnel complex with explosives, he added.

The Israeli military official said “tactical control” did not mean that Israeli forces were present at every point along the Philadelphi Corridor. But he said it meant that Israel could effectively disrupt Hamas’s supply lines, which pass through the border zone. Israeli troops, he indicated, were working to begin dismantling the tunnel network in the Rafah area.

On Wednesday night, in response to Israel’s announcement about the corridor, Egypt’s state-run Al-Qahera News channel quoted an unnamed senior official saying “there is no truth” to claims of tunnels under the border. But the official did not directly address Israel’s claim to control the corridor, or threaten further diplomatic action.

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