Skip to main content

War on Gaza: Israeli seizure of Rafah crossing with Egypt threatens 45 years of peace

A rift between the two allies is playing out in the media, with official silence feeding speculation about the fate of the 1979 treaty
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on May 10, 2024 reportedly shows Israeli soldiers standing atop a main battle tank as part of the Givati Brigade operating in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (AFP)
This handout picture released by the Israeli army on 10 May 2024 reportedly shows Israeli soldiers standing atop a main battle tank as part of the Givati Brigade operating in eastern Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip (AFP)

The sight of Israeli tanks at the Rafah crossing last week replacing the Palestinian flag with the Israeli flag a few metres from Egyptian territory has sent shockwaves across Egypt

The area where the tanks appeared was designated as demilitarised in the 1979 peace treaty and a 2005 agreement between the two countries, prompting speculation about the future of their bilateral relations.

Cairo has been a key mediator between Israel and the Palestinians in the current conflict, and has maintained peaceful relations with Israel over the past 45 years.

The peace treaty and the 2005 accord allow for deploying troops in the crossing area only after mutual agreement between the two sides, but Egypt has not officially confirmed that any prior agreement took place when Israeli troops reoccupied the crossing.

An Egyptian military source told Middle East Eye last week that there had been "no operation coordination" between Egypt and Israel before the crossing was attacked.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Mahmoud Hadhoud, an Egyptian political analyst, said that Israeli forces likely did not begin their assault on the Rafah crossing without informing Cairo. 

However, he added, "it is highly unlikely that the notification sent by Israel mentioned a long-term Israeli control of the crossing or a stable presence of forces in the Philadelphi Corridor", referring to the 100-metre buffer zone along the 14km border between Gaza and Egypt.

"It merely indicated a limited operation to ensure that Palestinian factions were not using the area surrounding the crossing for their military activities," he told MEE.

'Israel has lost Egypt'

An apparent rift between the two sides has played out mainly in the media, with little official statements on the event. 

Formally, Cairo's reactions have been limited to statements by the foreign ministry denouncing the operation and the "dire consequences" of the closure of the crossing. But Egypt has yet to officially comment on the fate of its peace treaty and whether Israel has crossed a threshold in bilateral relations.

'After Camp David, this is the moment Egypt has come closest to war against Israel. May God protect us'

Ahmed Ragab, journalist

In the most anti-Israel move by Egypt since the Israeli onslaught on Gaza in October, Egypt announced its intention to join South Africa in its case against Israel at the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide against the Palestinians in Gaza.

The decision, however, came five months after the case was brought before the court, and after several other countries, including Turkey, Colombia and Nicaragua decided to intervene in the case. Legal experts have said that it might take years for the world court to reach a judgement about Israel's violations of the Genocide Convention during its onslaught on Gaza. 

Whereas the official Egyptian rhetoric remains relatively non-confrontational, media known to have close ties to Egyptian intelligence have expressly stated that Egypt-Israel relations have reached a watershed moment.

"Israel has lost Egypt," said Amr Adib, a broadcaster on the Saudi-owned MBC Masr, known for his close ties with the Egyptian state.

"The absence of Egypt in the political and military equation in Gaza is a severe loss for Israel. It's now nearly certain that Egypt has become part of the problem, not the solution," he said on his show on Sunday. 

"This political collapse caused by Israeli foolishness will take time to return to normalcy," he added.

Rafah invasion: Did Israel coordinate with Egypt before reoccupying the crossing?
Read More »

On Monday, the semi-official Egyptian channel Cairo News published Israeli reports claiming that Egypt and Israel had "prior understandings" regarding the Rafah invasion but that the invasion of the crossing has prompted Egypt to "retract" these understandings.

The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday cited Egyptian officials as saying that Cairo is considering a downgrade to bilateral ties with Israel, including withdrawing their ambassador.

The US paper, citing anonymous officials, reported that Israel only gave Egypt "hours' notice" before advancing on the crossing. 

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported this week that Egyptian officials have abruptly cancelled planned meetings with their Israeli counterparts amid a diplomatic fallout caused by the Rafah operation and Egypt's decision to intervene in the ICJ case. 

Anonymous sources on both sides have given statements to the media suggesting a major rift in relations. One Israeli source told i24 news that Egypt's decision to join the ICJ case was "a betrayal" of the historic cooperation between the two countries. 

An anonymous Egyptian official told the Associated Press on Sunday that Cairo had warned Israel and its western allies that the peace treaty was at "high risk". Multiple diplomatic sources in February cited by the news agency said that Egypt had threatened to suspend the treaty in the event of Israeli ground invasion of Rafah. This has not been matched by any official statements, however.

Symbolic significance

The Egyptian reaction to the Israeli military operations in Rafah aligns with the US administration's decision to suspend some arms and ammunition shipments to Israel for the same reason, which has heightened Israeli fears of international isolation and Israel turning into a pariah state.

But Israel's deployment of tanks around the border and the raising of Israeli flags signalling Israeli control over the Philadelphi Corridor has apparently irritated Egypt, Hadhoud said. 

Egypt tribal group calls for 'alternative crossing' after Israeli invasion of Rafah
Read More »

The Israeli declaration of intent to hand over the crossing to an American security company for management is another provocative step for Cairo, the analyst added.

Israel has declared that the Rafah invasion is aimed at destroying the last battalions of Hamas and exerting military pressure to free the captives. 

However, Sayed Ghoneim, a former senior officer at the Egyptian army and an academic and military affairs expert, argued that Israel's goal is to control the Philadelphi Corridor and not merely attack four battalions in Rafah.

Ghoneim added that Israel's control over the Rafah Crossing has symbolic significance. 

"The crossing symbolises Palestinian and Egyptian sovereignty as an international passageway governed by international agreements," he told MEE.

Meanwhile, commentators on social media have warned of an imminent war between Egypt and Israel.

"After Camp David, this is the moment Egypt has come closest to war against Israel. May God protect us," wrote Egyptian journalist Ahmed Ragab.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.