Egypt faces difficult choices after Israel's seizure of Gaza's southern border

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to occupy a sensitive corridor of land in the Gaza Strip along the border with Egypt late last year, Cairo's response was public, explicit and threatening.

“It must be strictly underlined that any Israeli move in this direction will lead to a serious threat to Egyptian-Israeli relations,” the Egyptian government said in a statement in English in January, weeks after Netanyahu announced plans to occupy the area. called the Philadelphia Corridor. Egypt has said an Israeli military presence there would violate the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

This week, the Israeli army announced that it had taken “tactical control” of the corridor. Yet while the Egyptian government has faced internal pressure to take a tougher stance on Israel following its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, there has been no public Egyptian comment on the seizure of the corridor .

The silence may be a reflection of the dilemma Egypt finds itself in after nearly eight months of war in Gaza.

According to former Israeli and Egyptian officials, Egypt and Israel consider their relationship a cornerstone of their national security, making it unlikely that the Egyptian government will take substantive measures against Israel. The peace between Egypt and Israel has been an anchor of stability in the Middle East for 45 years.

Ezzedine Fishere, a former Egyptian diplomat, said in an interview Thursday that Egypt has adopted the doctrine of keeping the relationship with Israel stable and protecting it “from the inevitable crises that arise from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

“Egypt has been consistent in trying to protect this relationship and minimize the impact of the conflict,” Fishere said.

Egypt's economy, fragile even before the war, has been hit by the collapse of traffic through the Suez Canal, losing billions of dollars in revenue as ships diverted by Houthi attacks in or near the Red Sea.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is alarmed by the prospect of an influx of Gaza refugees across his border, is sensitive to outrage in Egypt and the Arab world over Israel's bloody campaign in Gaza, and is wary of of the influence of Islamic groups such as Hamas. Hamas grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that al-Sisi ousted from power in a 2013 coup.

While expressing solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, the Egyptian government has also cracked down on dissent at home. According to the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, 120 people were detained in the context of pro-Palestinian protests in the country, of whom around 30 were eventually released.

The Israeli military said it had advanced into the border area in an attempt to stifle Hamas's ability to smuggle ammunition into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Egypt has strenuously rejected that claim, saying it has destroyed 1,500 tunnels and fortified the wall between Gaza and Egypt over the past decade.

Israel's entry into the corridor this week is part of Israel's offensive on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, which has pushed more than a million Palestinians, most of them already displaced from their homes, to flee the city , according to the United Nations.

Former enemies who fought several wars from 1948 to 1973, Israel and Egypt clashed diplomatically over Israel's campaign in Gaza, particularly Israel's Rafah offensive. But Egyptian and Israeli authorities now coordinate closely on security matters, with defense officials meeting regularly in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

“Security people will continue to talk to security people,” Fishere said. “The border will be jointly managed and communication will continue. Both sides know it is in their best interests.”

Even so, these bonds are now being put to the test.

In early May, Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah border crossing, a vital gateway for food and other goods, and it has been closed ever since. Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian officials have argued over who is to blame for the closure and how to resume operations there.

Kan, Israel's public broadcaster, reported Thursday evening that Israel and Egypt had agreed in principle to reopen the crossing, but the more fundamental question, who would operate it from the Gaza side, remained unanswered. The news could not be confirmed immediately.

Furthermore, analysts say the prospect of Israeli forces conducting intense military operations so close to Egyptian soil has worried Egyptian and Israeli officials, who prefer to keep their armies as separate as possible.

On Monday, at least one Egyptian soldier was killed in a firefight with Israeli forces near the Rafah crossing – the kind of clash that could inflame public opinion. Both sides say they are investigating the incident, but the Egyptian government and its tightly controlled media have downplayed the incident.

Egyptian officials have warned for months against Israel's military offensive in Rafah, saying it could be catastrophic for civilians in Gaza.

Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said one of Egypt's main concerns is that Israeli operations could push Gazans to flood across the border. As long as that prospect remains distant, any discontent stirred up in Egypt by Israel's operation in the Philadelphia corridor can probably be managed, Shaked said.

“Both Israel and Egypt understand their true interests,” he added. “There is tension, disappointment and frustration on both sides, but they are trying to keep it under the table.”

Israeli military officials have generally avoided accusing Egypt of failing to crack down on cross-border trafficking, which some analysts have called an attempt to avoid damaging the delicate and important ties between the two countries.

On Wednesday night, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, Israel's military spokesman, refused to explicitly confirm that Israeli forces had discovered cross-border tunnels in the corridor. But an Israeli military officer, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to respect military protocol on Wednesday, said troops had identified at least 20 tunnels running from Gaza to Egypt.

One of the tunnel networks in the area – whose entrance was 100 meters from the Rafah crossing – extended nearly a mile underground, including a room intended as a hideout for militants, Admiral Hagari said. Israeli forces demolished the tunnel complex with explosives, he added.

The Israeli military officer said “tactical control” did not mean that Israeli forces were present at every point along the Philadelphia corridor. But he said that meant Israel could effectively cut off Hamas' supply lines, which pass through the border area. Israeli troops, he indicated, are working to begin dismantling the network of tunnels in the Rafah area.

In response to Israel's announcement about the corridor on Wednesday evening, Egyptian state channel Al-Qahera News quoted an unnamed senior official as saying there was “no truth” to the claims about tunnels under the border. But the official did not directly address Israel's claim to control the corridor, nor did he threaten further diplomatic action.

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