The border at Rafah: Expansion of the Egyptian fortress

The border at Rafah: Expansion of the Egyptian fortress

The border between Gaza and Egypt is being strengthened. Cairo is apparently preparing for a mass onslaught in the event of a ground offensive in Rafah.

No way through: border facility in Rafah between Gaza and Egypt on February 10th Photo: Mohammed Salem/Reuters

With the threatened Israeli ground offensive in Rafah, the politically highly sensitive border between Gaza and Egypt is coming into focus. Well over a million people have been rounded up on the Palestinian side in and around the small town of Rafah.

Meanwhile, Egypt continues to expand its border fences and walls on the other side and is only allowing a few wounded people through for treatment in hospitals. But it is unclear whether the border would be able to withstand a mass rush.

The independent Egyptian news portal Mada Masr reports, citing eyewitnesses on both sides of the border, that the country has instead further expanded a concrete wall with barbed wire and a steel barrier in recent days. According to reports, Cairo has also sent 40 tanks and military vehicles towards the border.

Cairo had already built a sand barrier and additional concrete barriers on the Egyptian side in November. They are intended to prevent people from the Palestinian side from reaching a buffer zone on the Egyptian side. The regime in Cairo has ruled out opening the border to those seeking protection on a large scale. The main reason is probably that Palestinian refugees have been a significant political force in countries like Jordan or Lebanon for decades.

When Israel left Sinai

The border between Gaza and Egypt is politically sensitive because as part of their 1979 peace treaty that ended Israel’s occupation of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, both countries agreed to a buffer zone called the Philadelphi Corridor.

This 14-kilometer-long strip, located on the Palestinian side, stretches across the entire Gaza-Egypt border area and should be controlled and patrolled by Israeli forces. Egypt also agreed to partially demilitarize the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel controlled the Philadelphia Corridor until 2005, when it completely withdrew its military from the occupied Gaza Strip and cleared all Israeli settlements in the area. Egypt and Israel also agreed on new rules at this time. Egypt was allowed to send 750 soldiers and heavy weapons to the area to monitor and secure the Egyptian side of the corridor. Two years later, Hamas took full control of the Gaza Strip, including the border area with Egypt.

Where to go in the event of a ground offensive?

Now two developments are once again calling the security arrangement into question: Firstly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that he wants to bring the Philadelphia Corridor back under Israeli control. The area “must be in our hands,” he said. Otherwise, the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip that Israel is striving for could not be implemented. Retaking the corridor would not affect Egyptian territory, but it would effectively separate the Gaza Strip from Egypt.

On the other hand, the question arises as to what will happen if Israel’s military actually advances ground troops into Rafah in the coming weeks. Netanyahu has indicated that civilians could flee from Rafah to the northern Gaza Strip, where there are many areas that have been cleared by the army. However, aid organizations point out that free areas lacking any infrastructure are not an option for accommodating tens of thousands of people.

A mass rush and possibly a breach of the highly secured border with Egypt cannot be ruled out – a scenario that Cairo wants to prevent at all costs. According to reports over the weekend, Cairo even threatened behind the scenes to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if Israel’s military invaded Rafah.

However, apparently in response to the reports, Foreign Minister Samih Shukri said on Monday: “There is a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel that has been in force for forty years and will remain in force.” The 1979 peace agreement with Israel was a historic step, Egypt was the first Arab country to officially recognize Israel.


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