by Antonella Caruso
Originally published on Limes 10/2023 Guerra Grande in Terrasanta
1. On 21 October, speaking in Cairo at the peace summit, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stated: ‘Egypt has affirmed, and is reiterating, its vehement rejection of the forced displacement of the Palestinians and their transfer to Egyptian lands in Sinai. He will be mistaken in his understanding of the nature of the Palestinian people, whoever thinks that these proud, steadfast and resilient people are willing to abandon their land, even if that land is under occupation or bombardment.’ The line was thus set on the forced emigration of Palestinians from Gaza to the Egyptian Sinai. El-Sisi had insisted on this line since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict on 7 October.
The Egyptian position, like the Arab position in general, remains anchored to the diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rejection of any attempt by Israel to transfer the population of the Strip to Sinai, or that of the West Bank to Jordan. Egyptian and Arab fears were especially reinforced by the ultimatums the Israeli army (IDF) issued ordering the inhabitants of Gaza to abandon their homes, to move southwards and then in the direction of Sinai, on pain of death under shelling. On the wave of these appeals and under the incessant rain of rockets, more than a million displaced people have been forced to move into southern Gaza, in the hope of finding refuge in already densely populated areas, or to land in North Sinai through the Rafah border crossing, closed to civilian passage.
Under Israeli-Egyptian siege since 2007 (the year Hamas seized power), Gaza has since broken its geographical isolation and economic strangulation, either illegally through underground tunnels or legally through three border crossings opened at arbitrary and irregular intervals routinely dictated by the security needs of its powerful neighbours. Of the seven crossings active during the Israeli occupation (1967-2005), only Erez in the north, Kerem Shalom, and Rafah in the south have been the gateways to this meagre territory. Erez, permitting the daily transit of the approximately 18,000 Palestinians employed in Israel, and Kerem Shalom, permitting trade with the Jewish State, have prevented the collapse of the Strip’s economy and its inhabitants’ worsening living conditions. Through the third crossing, Rafah, situated on the border with Egypt, goods, people and humanitarian aid pass. The first two crossings are closed and will remain so indefinitely. The last one, also closed for a fortnight since the start of the conflict, has been reopened for a limited time, allowing the passage of humanitarian aid to the Strip. The prolonged closure of these border crossings, as can also be seen from the data shown in the map and graphs of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is among the main causes of the tensions and conflicts that have been bloodying Israel and Gaza for sixteen years. This latest war is no exception.
Violent protests along the separation fence in the south-east and the firing of fireballs on neighbouring agricultural fields had already engaged the Israeli army last September and provoked yet another closure of Erez. Dismissed as customary reactions to the enforced isolation of Gaza, these protests had in truth already alerted the Israeli Defence and forced its minister Yoav Gallant to threaten more significant military action if the crisis worsened. On 7 October, this culminated in Hamas’ unexpected military incursion and the Islamic Jihad into the Jewish State, with the gruesome massacre of Israeli civilians in the border areas. The siege, the bombardment and invasion of Gaza were the ruthless military reaction promised by Gallant. The human and material costs of this war are already huge. Gaza lacks everything. Added to the catastrophe announced is the displacement of more than a million Palestinians who risk being without water, food and medicine near the border with Egypt. Their fate worries not only humanitarian organisations but also – above all – the government in Cairo.
2. Rafah, a town in British Mandate Palestine, was occupied by royal Egyptian troops during the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and then fell under Israeli occupation during the Six-Day War in 1967. Following the signing of the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the city was divided in 1982 between Palestinian Rafah, in occupied territory, and Egyptian Rafah. The treaty also established the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Sinai Peninsula and its demilitarisation.
Sinai was thus divided into four zones, of which only two (A and B) could accommodate Egyptian army and police units, armed respectively with heavy and light weapons. Area C, on the other hand, was limited to the presence of UN forces and Egyptian civilian police. Area D, along the Rafah border, was located in the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah border between Egypt, the Occupied Territories and Israel was then defined as inviolable and had three crossings: Rafah, Nitzana, and Taba. The Rafah crossing became an international crossing and as such was subject to legal agreements between the parties responsible for its operation: Egypt and Israel. Having no presence in Gaza, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) had been effectively marginalised.
Rafah is thus a divided city, extending into zones C and D. Its partition seems to be at the origin of the first tunnels built by Palestinian families with the intention of maintaining trade and communication with their relatives in the Egyptian Rafah. These tunnels would soon constitute the lifeblood of the economy of the Gaza Strip and Sinai, only to turn into the thorn in the side of Egyptian and Israeli security when this Palestinian territory, having been ‘liberated’ in 2005, passed the following year under the control of Hamas, winner of the legislative elections against rival Fatah/PLO/PNA. Hamas’ control became exclusive as a result of subsequent intra-Palestinian tensions.
Isolated by Egypt, Israel and the PNA, Hamas also broke the siege through a robust infrastructure of tunnels, through which clandestine trade in goods and weapons flourished between the two Rafahs and along the border. Palestinians as well as the Egyptian Bedouins, too long marginalised by the Cairo government, benefitted.
The Egyptian revolt of 2011 and the political and economic crisis that ensued marked a new phase in relations between Egypt and Hamas as well as between Egypt and Sinai, which over time would lead to the demolition of the tunnels, the gradual destruction of the Egyptian Rafah, and the construction of a new Rafah not far from the original site.
The border crossing for the passage of civilians then became the litmus test for Egypt-Hamas relations and an element of pressure from the former on the latter.
3. The security of Sinai, and in particular its northern border’s security, are an integral part of Egypt’s national security. Cairo’s evolving relations with the Gaza Strip – and with the Bedouin tribes of Sinai – must therefore also be seen from a security perspective, beyond diplomacy and regional geopolitics. It is no coincidence that the head of Egyptian intelligence has always been at the forefront of relations with Palestinian factions in Gaza.
The first Israel-Hamas War (2008) had already tested Egypt’s ability to take in and then send back home tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who had crossed the gaps opened by Hamas in the border wall. The Islamic State-Sinai Province’s terrorist attacks, which had intensified after the coup and the arrest of the Islamist President Mohammed Mursi, put a strain on control over the Egyptian peninsula, already grappling with the widespread and serious threat of the Muslim Brotherhood (the threat was later liquidated through violent and ruthless repression).
Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s rise to power in 2014 marks the beginning of deteriorating relations with Hamas, a loyal follower and ally of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also the prologue to the spike in terrorism in North Sinai. Similarly, it signals the intertwining of Egyptian domestic and regional politics.
Mursi, accused also of conspiring against the state alongside Hamas and Hezbollah, is sentenced to death. A relentless smear campaign against the Palestinian Movement ends up blaming him for the terrorist spike. An Egyptian civil court even goes so far as to designate it as a terrorist organisation in 2015, a definition that is dropped by a court of appeal a few months later. During the 2014 and 2018 Israel-Hamas Wars, Egypt remains adamant about the closure of the Rafah crossing for the passage of civilians, although it takes an active part in the negotiations on reconstruction and humanitarian aid that is legally supposed to pass through that border crossing.
4. Grappling with its own radicalism and strangled by the Israeli-Egyptian siege, Hamas began arresting hundreds of fighters and activists affiliated with and/or sympathetic to the Islamic State. With the publication of its new manifesto in 2017, it severed ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. It is important to note here that in that same year Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain also imposed a boycott on Qatar for its links with the Brotherhood, further isolating Hamas. Its political leaders found refuge and funding in the small Wahhabi emirate.
In a gesture of even greater openness towards its powerful neighbour, Hamas temporarily transferred control of the Rafah crossing to the Palestinian National Authority, destroyed some of its tunnels and finally built a 12-km long, 100-m wide buffer zone along its sandy border. Egypt conducted a tough anti-terrorist campaign in North Sinai in those same years and burnt to the ground thousands of tunnels and buildings, but also villages and cultivated fields in and around Rafah with the twofold aim of depriving the Islamic State-Sinai Province of its clandestine network of weapons and fighters and at the same time creating a buffer zone. Over time, this zone extended for 10 km along the border, with a depth of 1.5 km. Bounded by a wall and watch towers, the Rafah border is now patrolled by tens of thousands of border guards – 45,000 according to estimates by The New Arab daily. The military action in Rafah, which took place with US and Israeli tacit consent, and later with Hamas cooperation, was equated by Human Rights Watch with a possible war crime. Of the 81,000 inhabitants surveyed in Rafah in 2016, many were evicted or evacuated.
The old Rafah no longer exists. In its place, military installations meant to control the border dot its territory. The new Rafah, 5 km away from the original site, is still being completed.
The Egyptian military operations were part of the international war against the Islamic State and have as their backdrop el-Sisi’s simultaneous fight against political Islam – el-Sisi’s patron was the then US President Donald Trump. These operations were thus exempt from the arms and manpower restrictions that the Camp David Accords had imposed on Egypt in Sinai. The need for a permanent armed force had pushed Egypt to repeatedly ask Israel to revise that treaty. However, the amendment was not signed until late 2021, sanctioning both the victory of Egypt’s anti-terrorist campaigns against the Islamic State-Sinai Province and closer cooperation with Israel. This represented a new phase of détente and development on the Peninsula. Having declared the end of the state of emergency, el-Sisi now spoke of it as an oasis of security and stability in the region, ready to welcome infrastructure and industry and to be repopulated with new and old inhabitants. It is estimated that the cost of the Sinai development plan is around 40-50 billion dollars.
5. Egypt’s fear that Sinai will cease to appear as “an oasis of security and stability” is real. The Israeli plan today would be to empty the Gaza Strip of half of its inhabitants by forcing a second emigration, this time to the Egyptian peninsula. More than 50% of the Strip’s residents are in fact already registered as refugees, direct heirs of the Palestinians forced to emigrate in the first Arab-Israeli war (1948). The consequent destabilisation of the province resurrected the spectre of terrorism and scuppered el-Sisi’s development project.
The Israeli plan – real or presumed – has provoked multiple reactions in the Arab camp. One thinks of the Jordanian reaction, but there are also those of the Palestinian leaders, Ismail Haniyeh for Hamas and Abu Mazen for the Palestinian National Authority, who explicitly denounced Israel’s intention to make Gaza Palestinians emigrate to Egypt and the West Bank, with no possibility of return. The right of return of Palestinian refugees to Palestine is enshrined in UN resolutions and was one of the thorny issues in the defunct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The idea of a Greater Gaza in Sinai surfaced at the beginning of this millennium, attributed mainly to Giora Eiland, head of the National Security Council (2004-6) under then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and one of the architects of the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Following Hamas’ seizure of power, and in the absence of the conditions for the creation of an independent Palestinian state – in particular the impossibility of the parties to the conflict to accept political compromises and the lack of mutual trust – Eiland worked out a possible solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that involved transferring responsibility for the Palestinian issue from Israel to Jordan and Egypt. Changing the parameters of previous peace plans, he suggested considering two regional alternatives that were far more realistic than the utopian two-state vision. The first alternative would have been a Jordanian-Palestinian federation. Israel’s annexation of 12% of the West Bank territory would have allowed for a more limited dismantling of the Jewish colonies and at the same time for the Hashemite monarchy’s military control over the Palestinian territory. The second alternative would have been the transfer of 720 square kilometres from Sinai to Gaza – equal to 12% of the territory annexed by Israel in the West Bank – in exchange for the cession to Egypt of a similar territory, the Paran region in the south-western Negev. The two alternatives, distinct and separate, would have become complementary over time and would have made Gaza an Egyptian protectorate, connected to Jordan through a ten-kilometre tunnel. In support of his plan, Eiland outlined the economic and security benefits for all countries in the Middle East region, including Palestine. Among these benefits he counted the development of energy and transport infrastructure as well as the resulting normalisation of relations between Arab countries and the State of Israel.
It would seem that his proposal had the support of the Israeli military establishment. It would also seem that it was taken seriously by Likud members, parliamentarians and advisors in the second Netanyahu government (2009-2013). The United States too seemingly joined the circle of supporters. According to this plan, Greater Gaza would have become the contiguous and demilitarised state of Palestine, with the West Bank outsourced to a purely administrative Palestinian authority.
The one who publicly denounced the plan was of course PNA President Abu Mazen who, rejecting it as an Israeli attempt to liquidate the Palestinian question tout court, feared the possibility that Mursi’s Egypt might be inclined to accept it under strong American pressure. Abu Mazen thus discredited not only Egypt’s Islamist President but also the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.
The plan returned to the attention of Israeli, Arab and international public opinion on the airwaves of the IDF’s Army Radio. The independent Israeli daily The Times of Israel reported it in the guise of yet another rejection by the Palestinian President of the Eiland Plan apparently presented to him, this time by none other than the Egyptian President el-Sisi. According to the same newspaper, both Arab leaders categorically denied the news. In spite of denunciations and denials, the idea of a Greater Gaza resurfaced in the summer of 2019 and fit well with the new American diplomatic-business approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The government document ‘Peace to Prosperity’ – better known as Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ – does not actually contain any explicit reference to the relocation of Palestinian refugees to Sinai or to a Greater Gaza. Nonetheless, the emphasis on strengthening and linking the two economies through infrastructure and trade projects, as well as the unspecified development of border crossings, suggests Eiland’s old idea and its sophisticated metamorphosis aimed at ensuring security for Israel and economic benefits for Gaza and Sinai. It would seem that the latter received 9 of the 50 billion dollars mentioned in the plan. However, neither the money nor the perfect understanding between the Egyptian and American Presidents led Egypt to accept the new (pro-Israeli) vision of peace and prosperity.
The fifth Israel-Hamas War has revived fears of a unilateral solution to the Palestinian question, that would run counter to UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 – the two Resolutions that alone bestow legitimacy on any serious peace plan. Eiland’s idea continues to fuel visceral reactions from both Egyptian and Palestinian sides, dictated by suspicion of Israeli tactics but also by the fragmentation of the Arab camp. That Greater Gaza was originally a simple proposal to ease the demographic pressure on a restricted territory with meagre natural resources does not prevent it from exerting a still significant impact today. In the light of the current conflict, the prospect of a Greater Gaza, whether or not cherished by Israel’s security services and the right wing of its political class, brings back old conspiracies and grudges. It is a sign that the road to Arab-Israeli normalisation remains long and winding.
6. Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel under US auspices. It has long been the regional actor the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians most listen to. The prestige of its diplomacy and geographical proximity to the theatre of war have made it a unique and indispensable mediator, advantaged by its long relationship with the Jewish state, with the PLO-PNA and, more recently, with the different factions operating in Gaza, in particular Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
By virtue of these relations, Cairo has constantly mediated conflicts and tensions between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, and between Israel and Hamas. It has promoted – unsuccessfully – intra-Palestinian reconciliation, with the aim of presenting a solid and united front in the difficult negotiations with the Jewish state. And it has finally claimed its important role in the geopolitics of the Middle East, due to geography, history, and ambition for power.
Yet Egypt is no longer alone. Competing with it for the role of indispensable mediator are now other regional actors, whose influence has grown in proportion to the decline of states traditionally opposed to normalisation with Israel (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Libya), the weakening of the peace front (Egypt and Jordan), and American disengagement from the region.
This explains, in part, the renewed interest of the Egyptian President in resuming relations with Hamas after the negative peak recorded in the years 2014-16. The denigration campaign of that period has been overtaken by the calm recognition of the Palestinian armed movement as an indispensable player in the resolution of the conflict and as an ‘inconvenient’ neighbour along the tumultuous Egyptian Sinai-Gaza border. This evolution was marked by Egyptian policy on the Rafah border-crossing during the fourth Israel-Hamas War in 2021.
Unlike in previous wars, the crossing remained open for the duration of the conflict to allow the rapid distribution of humanitarian aid and to avoid a new refugee crisis in the now ‘pacified’ Sinai. Egyptian accusations against Israel’s provocations in the Holy Places of Islam in Jerusalem – what had sparked the war – and against its repeated attempts to ‘Judaise’ Arab neighbourhoods, as usual did not fail to accompany the frantic mediation efforts towards a cease-fire. The success of this mediation earned Egypt the Biden Administration’s confirmation of its indispensable role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even though America under Biden had marginalised Egypt on the basis of its bad human rights record. Ever since the signing of the Camp David Treaty in 1979, the US has continued to allocate USD 1.3 billion a year in military aid. That diplomatic success, however, was not only due to Egypt. Qatar discreetly shared its laurels.
7. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was the first Arab head of state to visit the Gaza Strip in 2012, the year in which the Muslim Brotherhood was experiencing its ephemeral moment of glory after the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the ensuing tumultuous political phase. Qatar still hosts, along with Hamas representative office and its political leaders, the old Khaled Mashal and the new Ismail Haniyeh, to whom it offered assistance in Gaza during and after the multiple conflicts against the State of Israel. This Persian Gulf emirate grants annual aid that is not always consistently disbursed. It is currently around $360 million and is intended to pay for electricity costs, humanitarian assistance programmes, and the salaries of Hamas public sector employees that the Palestinian National Authority does not cover. This financial aid is justified as a contribution to the solution of Gaza’s severe economic and humanitarian crisis also in the aftermath of the 2021 conflict. Initially agreed with Egypt and Hamas, it was later joined by the PNA and the UN, and finally approved by Israel on the basis of a complex formula aimed at stemming the obstacle of recognising Hamas as a terrorist group.
Qatar’s regional importance is undeniable. Proof of this is that the United States recognises it as its largest non-NATO ally and that it hosts the largest airbase in the Middle East, the Al Udeid. Further proof is found in its nonchalant regional policy. Even at the expense of the boycott that ended with the change of neither course nor alliances in 2021, Qatar continues to cultivate relations with states and movements antagonistic to its American ally. In this case, Hamas and Iran, from which both Israel and the US accrue both benefits and disadvantages.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey shares with Qatar sympathy and support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Like Doha, Ankara also worked to facilitate the release of the two hundred or so hostages who ended up in Hamas’ hands in Gaza after 7 October. The Turkey-Egypt rapprochement, after tensions dating back to the military coup against Islamist President Mohammed Mursi in 2013, is recent. The resumption of diplomatic relations, with an exchange of ambassadors, dates back to last July.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) also stands out in the regional context. Opposed to the positions of Qatar and Turkey, it has long been eyeing a regime change in Gaza as an anti-Hamas and anti-Muslim Brotherhood move. A signatory to the Abraham Accords in 2020, the UAE has explicitly accused Hamas of a ‘serious, grave escalation’ but is on the forefront of providing humanitarian aid and financial assistance to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
Next, certainly not in terms of importance, is Saudi Arabia. Leaving the Abraham Accords in abeyance, and with them the prospects of nuclear development under American aegis, it can count on relations with states in the region, including Iran, and on the ‘newfound’ role as a leader of moderate Islam to influence the search for peace.
Finally, there is Algeria. Having emerged unscathed from the last Arab Spring, its regime has strengthened its regional role by taking advantage of the energy crisis in Europe triggered by the war in Ukraine. Opposed to the Abraham Accords – also because Morocco is a signatory to and beneficiary of those agreements – Algiers has endeavoured to mend intra-Palestinian ties and to support the signing of a short-term understanding between Hamas and the PNA, in view of the Algerian summit of the Arab League in November 2022.
8. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently visited the region with the dual intent of supporting Israel in its war on terror and freeing hostages, but also to prevent the conflict from spreading from Gaza to the entire Middle East.
Egypt was his last stop, before returning to Israel to prepare for President Biden’s visit under the banner of full support and absolute solidarity with the Jewish State as it grapples with its 9/11. This was a delicate stop for Blinken in any case, in the light of the scandal raging in the American Congress around the influential Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, accused of receiving money and gifts from Cairo in exchange for information and favours in the Biden administration. Still it was an important stop, because of Egypt’s indispensable though not unique role in Hamas-PNA-Israel mediation and its diplomatic skill in bringing a divided regional and international community together in Cairo. Lastly, Egypt’s control of the Rafah crossing and the arrival of humanitarian aid to Gaza was a must. American support for the el-Sisi administration did not fail this time either. Egypt still plays a key role in the resolution of the conflict.
In this context, Cairo is called upon to put its security and humanitarian efforts on the same scale, to guarantee both. The opening of Rafah will perhaps snatch from death hundreds of thousands of displaced people amassed in the south of the Strip along the Sinai border. However, these poor human caravans will not cross the border and pitch their tents in refugee camps on the Peninsula. They will only have the miserable prospect of surviving this umpteenth war and continuing to breathe the increasingly suffocating air of Gaza, their open-air prison.
(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)