An Israeli offensive in Rafah could worsen relations with Egypt

Prof. Elie Podeh February 2024
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

Up to this point, Israel and Egypt have managed to navigate the challenges posed by the conflict, albeit with some difficulty. However, Netanyahu’s directive to the military to formulate a plan for eradicating Hamas’s battalions in Rafah, including the evacuation of civilians from the area – a task that would entail the IDF regaining control of the Philadelphi Corridor – may prove overly ambitious. In reality, the plan has already been devised and is pending approval by the cabinet.

In the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt share several strategic objectives. They aim to defeat Hamas or significantly diminish its political and military power. Egypt views Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – an organization that had been outlawed and suppressed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Both countries seek to restore stability to the Gaza Strip and the wider region. Egypt has suffered significant economic setbacks, including a sharp decline in tourism and in income from fees for transiting the Suez Canal, due to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

Israel and Egypt both aim to demonstrate to the Arab world the destabilizing effects of supporting the Shia axis. They envision a new Sunni-led regional order, supported by the United States, to counterbalance the influence of Iran and its allies.

At the same time, there are conflicts of interest between Israel and Egypt.

From the Egyptian perspective, Israel taking control of the Philadelphi Corridor while “encouraging the migration of Gazans to Egypt,” as several Israeli politicians have stated, constitutes a red line.

Similarly, the two states are in disagreement over what should happen after the war. While Egypt supports the return of an “upgraded” PA to rule Gaza, Israel has expressed opposition to the return of the PA in any form. Israel has also said that the IDF will not rule over the Gaza Strip – but has not specified who will.

Regarding the future of the West Bank. While Egypt, the Arab states, the United States, and the international community support the unification of the West Bank with the Gaza Strip and the establishment of a Palestinian state led by an upgraded PA, Israel remains opposed to such an outcome. These conflicts of interest, however, are not currently a threat to the stability of Egyptian-Israeli relations.

At present, the primary concern revolves around Rafah. From a military standpoint, Israel aims to eliminate the Hamas battalions in Rafah and gain control over the Philadelphi Corridor to block Hamas’s smuggling tunnels. Egypt seeks to broker a deal to secure the release of hostages and halt the war, at least temporarily, to ward off the nightmarish scenario of Palestinian refugees flooding Sinai. To this end, and with Israel’s participation, Cairo hosted an important meeting – which so far has not yielded any results.

With Israel unwilling to sign a deal at just any price, an Israeli military operation in Rafah following a collapse of negotiations is a very real and frightening possibility from an Egyptian perspective. Were it to occur, such a scenario would be viewed by the public and by certain governmental circles in Egypt as the outcome of an Israeli policy targeted at expelling the Palestinians from Gaza.

Egypt threatening Hamas and Israel

In the meantime, Egypt is attempting to solve the problem by threatening both Hamas and Israel. Egypt has told Hamas that Israel will attack Rafah if it does not agree to a deal within two weeks. This threat would seem to imply agreement with an Israeli attack on Rafah if a deal is not reached – a failure that would fall on the leadership of Hamas, as it is unlikely that this time frame has been decided without coordination with Israel.

In tandem, Egypt has warned Israel against the “disastrous consequences” of a military operation in Rafah. Yet, at the same time, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that there was no threat to the peace treaty between the two countries as they are “actively dealing” with the pressing issues.

For Israel, launching a military operation in Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor may create two problems. First, there are ethical concerns regarding the displacement of approximately 1.3 million Gazan refugees who would be forced, once again, to seek shelter elsewhere. Second, there are political and military implications for Egypt, particularly if masses of Palestinian refugees attempt to breach the fence and seek refuge in Sinai.

Although Egypt has been buttressing the fence recently, it would be difficult to control large numbers of desperate refugees looking to escape the fighting. In such a scenario, Egypt would face the dilemma of either resorting to the use of force against the crowds and risking accusations of betrayal and abandonment of the Palestinians or allowing them entry and placing the blame on Israel, leading to a crisis in diplomatic relations that could result in Egypt recalling its ambassador or even taking a more serious step.

Looking at it from another angle, Israel could potentially enhance its relationship with Egypt by facilitating aid from the international community and Arab states to bolster the Egyptian economy.

A historical precedent worth considering is the 1991 Gulf War, wherein Egypt’s participation led to the forgiveness of approximately $20 billion in debt and favorable repayment terms for other outstanding loans. Presently, Egypt faces significant economic challenges, further aggravated by the ongoing conflict. Significant international assistance to Egypt has the potential to impact its position on key security matters concerning Israel, such as the Philadelphi Corridor and the Rafah Crossing.

In essence, while an Israeli military operation in Rafah may be deemed necessary to eradicate Hamas, it also carries the risk of deteriorating Israeli-Egyptian relations. Avoiding this scenario will demand meticulous planning for the safe relocation of Gazan refugees and close coordination between Egypt and Israel.

Yet a sober analysis would lead to the conclusion that even with such measures in place, there’s no guarantee that the worst-case scenario can be entirely averted.

Prof. Elie Podeh teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a board member of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

The article was published in the “Jerusalem Post” on February 20th.

Mailing ListContact UsSupport Mitvim