Of All the Challenges... Egypt (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- May 20, 2024)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Egypt is angry and protesting over Israel’s Rafah offensive. Is this such a critical issue? More so than the Hezbollah challenge, accusations against Israel at The Hague, Washington’s arms embargo, the Gaza humanitarian crisis, the Gaza hostage plight, or Netanyahu’s controversial plans for military government in Gaza?

A. All these issues and more are critical for Israel: don’t forget threats from Iran and Yemen, the volatile West Bank situation, and the coalition’s explosive compulsory military service challenge. In the aftermath of the October 7 disaster brought on by Netanyahu’s mistakes, Israel is literally drowning in strategic challenges and dangers, both foreign and domestic.

But the crisis in relations with Egypt is critical, and urgent, because Israel’s entire strategic approach to the Middle East is anchored in a mutually beneficial military relationship with Egypt, and that relationship is now in danger. Remove the Egyptian lynchpin to Israel’s security, and Israel-Arab relations are set back by 50 years.

Here we have to understand that for Egypt the issue is not just Rafah, but rather Cairo’s broader attitude toward the Palestinians, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Sinai-Gaza connection. Israel, in occupying the Gaza-Egypt Rafah crossing on the Gaza side and attacking the city of Rafah, ignores this history and these issues at its peril.

Q. What is the history and why is it relevant today?

A. Egypt, in the course of nearly 80 years and multiple wars, shed a lot of blood over the Palestinian issue. From 1948 to 1967, Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. Gazan territory was the key to Egyptian-Israeli ground wars in 1948, 1956 and 1967. Indeed, so crucial was Gaza as a land barrier against Egypt that in 1949 Prime Minister David Ben Gurion told Washington that he was prepared to annex it with all of its then-200,000 Palestinian refugees, in return for a peace treaty with Egypt.

As Israel discovered when ultimately it began to negotiate peace with Egypt in 1977, from Cairo’s perspective Gaza is Palestine, to be negotiated with Palestinians, not Egyptians. Palestine is Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s.

More recently, Gaza has been ruled by Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, and Egypt has its own problems with the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Sunni Islamists like ISIS. In recent years, the Israeli and Egyptian militaries have cooperated closely in suppressing ISIS in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. And in recent months, Egypt has played its traditional inter-Arab leadership role in trying to facilitate release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

So the Hamas-Gaza-Islamist situation has a history and is complicated. But Egypt has its ‘red lines’, and lately Israel has been crossing them.

Q. Where?

A. For one, there are now 70,000 Gazan refugees in Sinai and elsewhere in Egypt. They escaped there from the Gaza Strip through bribery, tunnels into Sinai and ‘connections’. For Cairo, 70,000 Palestinian war refugees in Egypt is 70,000 too many.

Remember, Palestine is supposed to be Israel’s problem, not Egypt’s. Here is Egyptian President a-Sissi, who has cut all direct communications with Prime Minister Netanyahu, declaring pointedly at the recent Manama (Bahrain) Arab League Summit that the Palestinians “have a homeland, and they must protect it from within its territory”.

Then too, the IDF has now occupied part of the Egypt-Gaza border, the so-called Philadelphi Axis, and particularly the Gaza side of the official Rafah crossing into Sinai. Israel has already uncovered additional functioning smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, deep beneath the Philadelphi Axis, thereby implicating Egyptian officials in Hamas’s sustained armament effort. And Israel has caused some 800,000 Gazans to flee north from Rafah to dangerously improvised living facilities.

More complications: Not only has Israel technically violated demilitarization provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty without prior coordination. But Egypt insists that the Gazan side of the Rafah crossing be manned by Gazans, not Israelis. It does not want to see the IDF deployed along its Gaza border. Conceivably, illicit income from Hamas’s smuggling operations has been lost by Egyptian border officials.

In protest, Egypt has ceased permitting entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza via the Rafah crossing and restricted aid access from Egypt to Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing. It has thereby seriously exacerbated the already disastrous Gaza humanitarian crisis. US Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew complained late last week, in inaugurating a US-built temporary pier for delivering aid to northern Gaza, that a lot of progress in improving the humanitarian situation had been undermined by Israel’s Rafah-crossing occupation.

Finally, in view of these circumstances, Egypt has frozen its overt efforts to facilitate a hostage-for-prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel. And while traditional Egypt-Israel security and intelligence cooperation continues (along the Sinai-Negev border and in the Red and Mediterranean seas), Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry--never as friendly to Israel as his military colleagues--is threatening that the crisis could affect the two countries’ peace treaty. Already he has declared support for South Africa’s case against Israel’s Gaza War at The Hague and downgraded Egypt’s embassy in Tel Aviv.

Q. Israel reportedly proposed that the Palestinian Authority operate the Rafah crossing on the Gaza side...

A. It is doubtful that PM Netanyahu ever endorsed such a proposal, in view of his resolute rejection of an initiative by Defense Minister Galant and senior IDF officers to involve the PA. Netanyahu, after all, does not endorse the idea of any sort of alternative Palestinian governance in the Strip, for fear this will alienate his annexationist coalition partners from the messianic right.

But Netanyahu does not have to worry. The PA leadership reportedly rejects any Palestinian management of the crossings “in light of the presence of Israeli forces inside Gaza”.

Q. Yet Netanyahu might have to worry because of threats from his more moderate coalition partners. Lately both Defense Minister Galant and National Unity party head and War Cabinet minister Gantz have issued ultimatums.

A. Broadly speaking, they want Netanyahu to finally propose a plan for post-war Gaza that relieves Israel of the burdens of occupation by involving Palestinians and other Arabs. They appear to believe the end of the war is in sight once the Rafah campaign is over. And the end of the war in Gaza could then lead to a ceasefire on Israel’s northern border, where Hezbollah has lately been escalating its drone attacks in order to pressure Israel and highlight the plight of some 60,000 Israeli refugees who have fled homes in the border region.

Q. So is the coalition in danger of collapse over Rafah?

A. Gantz and his National Unity party are in any case pledged to leave the coalition, which they joined after October 7 on an emergency basis, once the war winds down. But Galant is a Likudnik and apparently has ambitions to replace Netanyahu. That means that a Gantz defection still leaves Netanyahu with his original 64 member of Knesset coalition. And note, THERE HAS NOT BEEN A SINGLE DEFECTION from that coalition despite the appalling circumstances of the war and the disastrous crisis of governance that preceded it.

It is impossible to evade the conclusion that, at the end of the day, Netanyahu, his fellow Likudniks and his ultra-Orthodox and National Religious messianic-fascist partners do not care enough about Rafah, strategic relations with Egypt or even US strategic support for Israel’s Gaza war effort. They care more about power. They appear capable of doing just about anything to hold onto it. They care about molding Israel in their anti-democratic image. On Sunday they invoked the US political divide by hosting Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, an extreme Trump supporter and Biden critic, in the Knesset.

Israel calls its Rafah offensive a “limited operation”. That sounds like the Orwellian terminology the Russians have been using in Ukraine. When the IDF’s Rafah operation goes sour--because of the inevitable atrocities, Israeli losses, dead hostages, escalated condemnation at The Hague, and the ultimate failure to “dismantle” Hamas--no one in Netanyahu’s government will be able to argue that they were not warned