newsIsrael at War

In a Rafah op, Israel’s most pressing concern isn’t the US but Egypt

“There is a nightmare dream in Egypt: The fear that hundreds of thousands of Gazans will threaten to break through the Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt,” a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University told JNS.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York, Sept. 26, 2018. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York, Sept. 26, 2018. Photo by Avi Ohayon/GPO.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel cannot enter Rafah in force under current circumstances because it would lead to a “disaster.”

Netanyahu issued a short statement saying, “I gave an order for the military to prepare” for such an operation, putting the Arab states, the Europeans and the U.S. on notice. Now, they are all rushing to influence the timing and nature of the operation.

Jacob Nagel, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, told JNS, “Biden is not telling Israel not to attack Hamas in Rafah. He is saying: If you find solutions to the refugee problem, there will be a green light.”

A U.S. official told JNS that, in recent days, the Biden administration has handed Israel a list of demands that must be met before any operation in Rafah. They include the establishment of a refuge for the 1.4 million Palestinians in the Rafah area and multiple access points for humanitarian aid, since the Rafah Border Crossing itself will be partially or completely closed in any IDF operation.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Israel has already suggested a plan to establish 15 new enclaves in southwest Gaza, composed of around 25,000 tents, to house the Gazans currently in Rafah.

Nagel told JNS, “Israel should do in Rafah what it did in the north and the center of the Strip: total elimination of Hamas, breaking the capabilities of Hamas. … There’s just no other option.”

Israel’s most pressing concern regarding a Rafah operation, however, is not the U.S. but Egypt.

Yehuda Blanga, a senior lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, told JNS, “There is a nightmare in Egypt—and senior Israeli officials are not really helping to calm the situation—the fear that hundreds of thousands of Gazans will threaten to break through the Rafah Border Crossing into Egypt.”

“The Egyptians fear the Palestinians will start climbing fences because they will be in another moment of humanitarian disaster,” Blanga explained. “On the Egyptian side, there is no problem in saying, ‘Whoever crosses the border, we will shoot him.’ No one intends to allow them to settle them in Sinai.”

Unnamed Egyptian officials were recently quoted warning that any Israeli operation in Rafah under current conditions would result in a suspension of Egypt’s decades-old peace treaty with Israel. Publicly, however, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has said, “The peace accord has existed for more than 40 years and we intend to keep it that way.”

“Israel should act in Rafah even if Egypt says no,” Nagel said. “The Egyptians will say that it’s offensive and that it’s against the [peace] agreement, but in the end, it will not cause a severing of ties, because Egypt needs the peace agreement as much as we do. Egypt is currently in a very difficult situation because of the economic situation. It needs U.S. support.”

But why is there so much opposition in Egypt to what seems to be the easiest solution: Allowing some of the Gaza population to resettle in Sinai, even temporarily?

“Egypt has its own economic problems and the president is currently making efforts to restore the Egyptian economy,” Blanga explained. “The last thing they want is to worry about the refugees being an economic burden.”

“The other problem is that these refugees from Gaza are not peaceful citizens,” he added. “Hamas members cross the border in civilian clothes. There are terrorist elements there who have connections with Hamas. And there have been cases where Egyptian citizens have been killed by terrorist activities that Hamas is connected to.”

JNS asked Blanga if he foresees any scenario in which Egypt would change its mind.

“I see a very slim chance,” he replied. “But if the Americans and the Europeans make a very generous offer to Egypt, and it is clear from the start that it is something temporary and not permanent, there might be a chance to convince the Egyptians to agree to some sort of arrangement. But this can only be done through sensitive negotiations.”

“In the end, it is in the Egyptians’ interest for Hamas to be defeated,” Blanga added. “They cannot say it publicly, because then the streets will be filled with protests. The government will be seen as an Israeli collaborator. But this is the truth.”

“Israel will have to enter Rafah,” he asserted, “where it assumes there are thousands of terrorists and tunnels. But how it’s done and when is something we will only know in the coming days; because, like always, this was something that was supposed to be decided weeks ago, but planning ahead is not the Israeli government’s strong suit.”

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