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Rafah invasion: Egyptian army turns to Sinai tribes to prepare for influx of Palestinians

Exclusive: Secret service officers ask Bedouin tribes to assist the army in preventing a mass influx of Palestinian refugees from Gaza to Egypt's Rafah
Sinai tribal leaders Ibrahim al-Organi (R) and his son Essam al-Organi (L) attend event announcing the Arab Tribes Union on 1 May 2024 (Facebook/Alorgani)
Sinai tribal leaders Ibrahim al-Organi (R) and his son Essam al-Organi (L) attend event announcing the Arab Tribes Union on 1 May 2024 (Facebook/Alorgani)

Egypt’s military intelligence has held meetings with Sinai tribes in recent weeks to discuss their potential role in the event of an Israeli invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, Middle East Eye can reveal.

At the meetings, Egyptian intelligence officers said they estimated a Palestinian influx of between 50,000 and 250,000 people towards Sinai if Israel carries out a ground operation in the Palestinian Rafah.

The meetings were held prior to the controversial creation of an alliance of tribal groups at the Egyptian side of Rafah, led by the influential pro-government businessman and militia leader Ibrahim al-Organi

The Arab Tribes Union (ATU), an alliance of five Egyptian Bedouin tribes, was announced at a large celebration on 1 May with the stated goal of integrating tribal entities into a single framework to support the Egyptian state against security threats. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was declared its “honorary president”.

The official spokesperson of the ATU, pro-government journalist and MP Mustafa Bakry, has said that the union should be considered as “a faction of the Egyptian army”, sparking widespread criticism and concern among Egyptian commentators. Many have warned about the formation of a vague paramilitary entity that operates parallel to the Egyptian army, similar to the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan.

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During the same event, Organi also celebrated the launch of a new city, named after Sisi, which he plans to build on the site of Al-Arjah village in southern Rafah adjacent to the Egypt-Israel border.

According to three Sinai tribal sources and one Egyptian security source, in the weeks leading up to the event, a number of meetings were held in North Sinai between senior members of Bedouin tribes, officers from the Secret Service apparatus in the military intelligence (known internally as Group 55), and others from the Second Field Army. 

The main topic of these meetings was the possibility of the influx of a large number of residents of the Gaza Strip due to a potential Israeli military operation in the Palestinian city of Rafah, which now hosts about 1.5 million displaced Palestinians. 

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All sources spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from the Egyptian army.

According to three people who attended these meetings, the army and intelligence officers emphasised the necessity of assisting the armed forces and security agencies in “monitoring any infiltration of Palestinians” towards the villages and centres of North Sinai should this displacement occur, and warned against harbouring any of them and immediately reporting any movement of unfamiliar individuals in the areas close to the border.

The announcement of the new union was made by Organi, who had been the head of the Union of Sinai Tribes (UST), a local tribal militia set up in 2015 to support the Egyptian army in its war against the Sinai Province, a local offshoot of the Islamic State (IS) in North Sinai. Rights groups have accused the UST and the Egyptian army of committing atrocities in their war against militant groups in Sinai. 

The UST’s mission in Sinai has been unclear since the army declared the defeat of the Sinai Province in 2022. According to Organi, the UST is now part of the ATU, which comprises tribal groups from across the country, including Sallum near the Libya border, Marsa Matruh, and Upper Egypt.

According to Sinai sources and the security source, Group 55 was the main driver in forming Organi’s UST. For many years, Group 55 has taken on the task of communicating, coordinating, and dealing with all matters related to the tribes in Sinai, having built strong relationships with most of the influential tribal leaders. 

Middle East Eye has contacted the Egyptian army and the ATU for comment, but has not received a response by the time of publication. 

According to the three Sinai sources, during meetings between Group 55 and Sinai tribal leaders, a number of attendees said it would be difficult to comply with official demands to prevent the entry of Palestinians into Sinai and report any movements across the borders, even with promises that the government would accommodate all displaced individuals. They highlighted their familial ties and relationships with people in the Gaza Strip, particularly Rafah, stating that it would be against their honour and Bedouin and tribal traditions to refuse hospitality and reception to them.

Rafah was historically one city until it was divided into two Egyptian and Palestinian cities after the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. 

Displaced individuals

The governor of North Sinai, Major General Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha, also held several similar meetings in recent weeks with tribal sheikhs and leaders. According to several attendees, the governor's meetings had a friendlier tone than those led by the secret service officers.

General Shousha is one of the few current Egyptian state leaders who participated in the October 1973 war against the Israeli army, where he served as an officer in the Sa’ka (Thunderbolt) forces of the Third Field Army. Besides his role as commander of the Border Guard, he held positions as commander and chief of staff of Sa’ka units.

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He also served as the governor of North Sinai between April 2008 and January 2010, a period that also witnessed the displacement of large numbers of residents of the Gaza Strip to Sinai during the Israeli onslaught on the enclave between December 2008 and January 2009.

During one of his meetings with the tribes, General Shousha shared an anecdote with the participants, asking them not to publish it, dating back to 2005 when the Egyptian border was breached by large numbers of people from Gaza following the Israeli withdrawal from the Strip. At that time, he was the commander of the border guard forces. 

He said that upon receiving information about the imminent border breach from the Palestinian side, he instructed his forces to take the highest degree of readiness and mobilisation to counter the breach, including preparing machine guns. However, he received a phone call from the then defence minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, with strict directives not to fire a single bullet at any Palestinian crossing the border. General shousha said he immediately ordered his officers and soldiers to comply with Tantawi's orders, adding that the army gradually managed to control the displaced individuals and return them to the Gaza Strip.

Border fortifications

Adjacent to the Palestinian city of Rafah, on the Egyptian side, are the cities of Egyptian Rafah, directly across the border, followed by the city of Sheikh Zuweid, 15 kilometres from the border, and then al-Arish, about 50 kilometres away. 

These three cities are home to four population groups: members of the tribes (primarily the Sawarka, Tarabin, and Romaylat tribes); urban families; those who have moved from other governorates; and finally, a number of Palestinian refugees who were displaced following the Nakba in 1948, estimated at about 20,000 people.

In 2014, the Egyptian government designated an area along the border with the Gaza Strip and extending five kilometres inside Egyptian territory as a buffer zone where civilian presence is completely prohibited, leading to the complete removal of the city of Rafah and villages in that area and the displacement of its residents, under the pretext of the war on terrorism. 

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The only village left after the military campaign was al-Barth, which is the only populated area in that isolated zone and is the stronghold and capital of the Tarabin tribe, to which Organi belongs.

In 2021, the Minister of Defence issued a decision to designate an additional area extending from the end of the buffer zone to the village of Al-Shalaq in Sheikh Zuweid, and families displaced from this area during the war on terrorism were prohibited from returning, although there is still a population living in that area.

Anticipating an Israeli invasion of Rafah, the Egyptian army has added concrete and metal walls along the border with the Gaza Strip, spanning approximately 13.5 kilometres from Rafah's coast northward to the Kerem Shalom crossing in the south. The army had previously built a concrete wall separating the city of Sheikh Zuweid from al-Arish, with a single gate located in the village of Al-Shalaq at the western entrance of the city.

Recently, the army has also deployed a number of M60 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and airborne forces transported by four-wheel drive vehicles, called up immediately after the 7 October attacks on southern Israel, following their earlier withdrawal after the announcement of the defeat of the Sinai province. 

According to the 1979 peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel, these forces are currently stationed in Area (C), which is supposed to be the location of the multinational force and international observers, along with a number of lightly armed Egyptian police officers performing regular policing tasks, except for the border area adjacent to the Palestinian city of Rafah where an Egyptian border guard force exists as per an agreement signed between Egypt and Israel in 2005.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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