Egypt has grappled with a perplexing dilemma regarding the opening of the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. On one hand, the country is keen to assist severely injured Palestinians in their departure from the conflict zone. On the other, Egypt vehemently rejects the prospect of an influx of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mostafa Madbouly, emphasized, “We are prepared to make significant sacrifices to ensure the safeguarding of our territory.”
The negotiations surrounding the evacuation of injured Palestinians and select foreign nationals, primarily overseen by Qatar, have been closely linked to the flow of humanitarian aid from Egypt into Gaza through the same crossing. While the U.S. President, Joe Biden, negotiated a pathway for aid via Rafah, the provided quantities remain insufficient in comparison to the dire need. On Wednesday, the UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, reiterated the call for Israel to reopen Kerem Shalom, the crossing under its control at the southern tip of Gaza.
Critics have voiced their concerns over Egypt’s stance, questioning President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s reluctance to open his borders to Palestinian refugees, especially in the wake of the Israeli military response to the violent actions by Hamas on October 7th.
In a peace summit held in Cairo on October 21st, President Sisi emphasized the imperative stance of not condoning the use of human suffering to compel people into displacement. He underscored Egypt’s firm rejection of forced Palestinian displacement and the transfer of Palestinians to Egyptian territories in Sinai, warning of the devastating implications on the Palestinian cause and the dream of an independent Palestinian state.
Leaks from inside the Israeli government have disclosed plans to temporarily relocate tens of thousands of Palestinians to the Sinai Peninsula, evoking memories of the Nakba, or the catastrophic expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 following the establishment of Israel.
Egypt appears wary of following the footsteps of Lebanon and Jordan, which have been hosting Palestinian refugees for decades. President Sisi deems the prospect of sheltering up to one million Palestinians in camps on Egyptian soil a substantial political risk.
President Sisi has been keen to harness the pro-Palestinian sentiments within the country for his political advantage, with some protests aligning their slogans and symbols with the Arab Spring revolution of January 25, 2011.
Even discussions of a mass exodus make President Sisi uneasy, as evidenced by the suspension of Cairo-based news outlet Mada Masr for running a report on plans for the displacement of Gaza’s Palestinians to Sinai.
The Rafah border crossing was briefly opened on Wednesday for the evacuation of wounded Palestinians and foreign passport holders. However, the criteria for selection, negotiated between Israel and Egypt in Qatar, remain unclear, and embassies have limited influence in the process.
Egypt is cautious that the current trickle of departures could escalate into a mass movement, prompting the deployment of a substantial number of tanks on the Egyptian side of the border to prevent any such event.
U.S. Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, visiting the region on Friday, hopes that the organized departure of foreign nationals from Gaza will continue smoothly. This may lead to the release of additional hostages, increased aid delivery, and potentially a humanitarian pause, fostering a positive diplomatic cycle.
The UN reported that 59 trucks carrying essential supplies entered Gaza through Rafah, the most substantial convoy since the resumption of aid deliveries on October 21. The goal is to reach 100 trucks per day by the week’s end, highlighting the ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Israeli authorities have also begun showcasing aid delivery to Gaza through tweets aimed at international audiences. While fuel remains restricted, necessary water supplies are being channeled into Gaza through existing pipelines.
In a Washington Post article this week, Secretary of State Blinken conveyed to Israel the significance of allowing Egypt to provide more aid to Gaza, emphasizing that it aligns with Israel’s self-interest in safeguarding its security. He stressed the necessity of providing immediate aid and protection to Palestinian civilians in the conflict, laying the foundation for engaging with potential partners in Gaza who hold different visions for the region’s future, apart from Hamas.
The international community continues to watch closely as efforts persist in addressing the ongoing crisis in the Israel-Gaza conflict.