The Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip – following a devastating Hamas attack on Israel – has caused alarm in Egypt. Egypt’s eastern region, the Sinai, borders both Israel and Gaza. This has historically given it an important role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as it shares a 12 km border with Gaza and controls one of the two main border crossings for civilians, the Rafah crossing.
The passage is vital for the survival of Gazans. Since 2007, Israel has imposed a blockade (land, sea and air) and blockade on the Gaza Strip. This came after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and after Hamas won the 2006 elections.
Although the Rafah crossing is the only Gaza border not directly administered by Israel, Egypt has de facto supported the blockade because the Rafah border is tightly controlled and only opens unpredictably and occasionally.
Gaza is totally dependent on international humanitarian aid, the work of the few Palestinians allowed to work in Israel, and the tunnels dug under the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. For both Egypt and Israel, the tunnels constitute a threat as they could eventually be used for arms smuggling and terrorist infiltration.
The blockade of the Gaza Strip has had a dramatic impact on the lives of more than two million Palestinians living in Gaza. They lack access to fundamental rights such as food, education, employment and healthcare.
For almost 20 years, the Gaza Strip has been an open-air prison. The Rafah border crossing is therefore of enormous importance for Palestinians, as it is one of the few access points for the movement of people, goods and humanitarian aid to and from Gaza. It allows them to maintain vital connections with the outside world and access essential resources. Its operation plays a fundamental role in alleviating the difficulties faced by Gazans.
What does the new outbreak of war mean for the Gaza-Egypt border?
The outbreak of the current war between Israel and Hamas, along with other Palestinian resistance factions, highlights three key issues:
the importance of the Rafah border crossing for the stability of the region and for the Palestinians of Gaza;
the possible expulsion of Palestinian refugees from Gaza;
Egypt’s ambiguity towards the Palestinian people.
First, although the Rafah border crossing is the only exit from the Gaza Strip, it has been closed longer than it has been open for almost 20 years. It must be taken into account that a border crossing should operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The openings were sporadic and the conditions to obtain a transit authorization were unclear. It is also unclear who governs the border crossing and who decides its openings.
In recent years, Gazans have depended on the operation of the Rafah border crossing and the tunnels. This is even more true today: it represents a real lifeline for Gaza residents.
Secondly, a humanitarian opening of the crossing would probably mean the arrival of thousands of displaced Palestinians to Egypt. Egypt will not be willing to take them in because it fears they will stay permanently.
Finally, the issue of not easily accepting Palestinian refugees highlights Egypt’s ambiguous stance towards them. Among the Arab countries bordering Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Egypt is the only one that has not allowed the establishment of Palestinian refugee camps on its territory, unlike Syria, which hosts more than 500,000 refugees; Jordan, which hosts 2 million, and Lebanon, which hosts more than 200,000.
On the one hand, in its rhetoric, Egypt opposes the deportation of Palestinians from Gaza and supports them in their struggle to obtain a sovereign state.
On the other hand, Egypt is currently an overpopulated country with a fragile economy and does not want a new mass of poor people to enter its territory. Since 1948, it is estimated (although not known with certainty) that there are about 80,000 Palestinians living in Egypt. Most of them do not have citizen rights and live outside any framework of legal and humanitarian protection.
What should Egypt do given the complexity of the situation?
Right now, the situation is very volatile, but I think Egypt is not managing anything at all. In fact, he seems more like a passive spectator of the ongoing events.
If we rule out an unlikely Egyptian military intervention to stop the Israeli assault on Gaza (which could lead to a larger regional war), Egypt has only two options.
First, use all diplomatic channels at your disposal to negotiate a ceasefire. This will be an immense challenge, as Israel perceives the Gaza Strip and all its inhabitants (including minors, women and the elderly) as an existential threat, which means that it has no intention of calling off the war or listening to anyone.
Second, provide humanitarian aid to internally displaced people in the Gaza Strip through safe corridors. Israel cut off Gaza’s electricity, gas, internet and water supplies before its assault. Thus, Gaza is currently suffering from a total blackout and famine.
At this time, the main risk, which Egypt must take into account when making this decision, is the immense loss of life that Gazans face.