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No Exit: Egypt’s Dilemma on Gaza

Egypt finds itself between a rock and a hard place in the current war on Gaza. How Egypt decides to move forward could affect the security of the region for years to come.

As the only country that shares a common border with both Israel and Gaza, Egypt finds itself in a situation increasingly fraught with difficult choices. The resolution of the war is far from certain, but each of the scenarios that loom on the horizon poses its own set of questions that lay at the intersection of various strategic, tactical, and ideological considerations.

The confusion is in part attributable to the complicated relationship Egypt has had over the decades with the protagonists of the conflict. Historically an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime’s main domestic rival, Hamas, was consistently viewed with suspicion by Egypt. By and large, Egypt’s foreign policy has been in the past decades an extension of its domestic policy. Thus, the greater the tension in the relation between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, the greater the propensity of Egypt-Hamas ties to go downhill. Coming on the heels of the regime’s bloodiest feud with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt reacted nonchalantly to Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, exhibiting no interest in facilitating a quick ceasefire, contrary to its traditional stance. In 2015, an Egyptian court declared the al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, a terrorist organization. In subsequent years, however, Egypt sought to develop a working relationship with Hamas, driven primarily by its need to safeguard the border, maintain security in the Sinai Peninsula, and increase its regional influence by playing a mediating role between the group and Israel. For Egypt, Hamas today is neither a close friend nor an outright foe.

By and large, Egypt’s foreign policy has been in the past decades an extension of its domestic policy

Yet neither is Israel. Indeed, Egypt fought Israel four times between 1948 and 1973, but the “go-it-alone” peace deal it made with Israel in the late 1970s has proved to be stable and enduring. Under the presidency of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Egyptian-Israeli relations have grown to include close security and intelligence cooperation, a double-digit billion-dollar natural gas deal, and growing ties in tourism and trade. Yet, from a long-term strategic standpoint, Egyptian ruling elites perceive their country’s eastern neighbor to be a (albeit potential) rival, not an ally, decades of formal peace relations notwithstanding. In the meantime, border incidents like the one witnessed on January 15 when a group of people exchanged fire with the Israeli army, increase bilateral tensions.

And so, Israel’s declared war objective, the destruction of Hamas, throws Egypt into a dilemma. The elimination of Hamas is bad news for Egypt because it creates a security vacuum in Gaza which may undermine border security. It may also have significant spillover effects into the restive region of Sinai, where an armed insurgency by ISIS affiliates against security forces has taken place over the past decade—though it has subsided in recent years. However, the Egyptian authorities denounce Hamas for what it is: a militant, non-state actor with an Islamist ideology. It neither wants to see Hamas turn into a potent military force, nor wants to see its attractiveness rise in the region, an inevitability if Hamas comes to be perceived as triumphant in this ongoing conflict, either militarily, or even morally. How Egypt formulates its position will probably depend on the trajectory the conflict takes, but there are no easy paths ahead.

If the humanitarian situation in Gaza deteriorates even further, which seems the likely scenario, a mass exodus of Palestinian refugees to Egypt may follow. From the onset of the war, Israel has ordered residents of northern Gaza to flee southward. According to the UN, more than 90 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants have been internally displaced, following intense Israeli airstrikes and military ground operations. More than 24,000 people have so far been killed according to health officials in Gaza. The World Health Organization warned that there are signs of “a rapid spread of infectious diseases” in the strip. Worryingly, an official at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said in late October that “civil order is starting to break down.” Following years of blockade and weeks of war, destruction, and food scarcity, the complete collapse of order in Gaza cannot be ruled out as a war outcome. All of these elements have created the conditions for another Nakba (‘catastrophe’ in Arabic), only this time, specifically constituting the forced expulsion of Palestinians from northern Gaza to the south, then subsequently to the Sinai.

The forced displacement of tens, or potentially hundreds, of thousands of Palestinians would be a grave human tragedy

In such an event, Egypt would be caught between a rock and a hard place. The forced displacement of tens, or potentially hundreds, of thousands of Palestinians would be a grave human tragedy. From a purely practical viewpoint, the entrance of a large number of Palestinians into the Sinai would create a refugee crisis for Egypt. The provision of housing, healthcare, education, and work opportunities for refugees would strain the already cash-strapped public budget. As demonstrated by other states in the region, refugee camps that are initially designed to serve as a temporary solution, tend to acquire a permanent status over time.

Security considerations are also part of the equation. There is a possibility of some members of Hamas and other militant factions slipping in along with the predominantly civilian migrating population. The activities of these fighters could potentially persist even in exile, transferring a portion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from Gaza into an emerging Sinai theater. There is a further potential for these militant elements to develop close ties with those already established within the Sinai, localizing themselves within the Egyptian setting, and threatening a resuscitation of terrorism within the peninsula.

If, on the other hand, Egypt uses force to obstruct the entry of an unarmed and besieged Palestinian population into Egyptian territories, it will be readily seen at home and in the Arab world as complicit in Israel’s offensive. This issue cannot be of more pertinence for Egypt. Since 2007, Cairo has been blamed for its intermittent closure of the Rafah border crossing, which links Gaza and Egypt, and for the restrictions it has imposed on its operations. Hence, to avoid being perceived as contributing, even in part, to Palestinian suffering, Egyptian authorities have since the beginning of the current conflict repeatedly affirmed that the crossing was open from the Egyptian side. For the same reason, Egypt has been keen not only on sending several batches of humanitarian aid to Gaza, but also on showcasing these efforts.

This dilemma stems from the fact that both courses of action would chip away at the Sisi regime’s legitimacy, already in deficit, owing mainly to a severe economic economic crisis resulting in record-high inflation rates and a dearth of hard currency. From the prism of Egyptian nationalism, letting Palestinians in would be tantamount to relinquishing national sovereignty. Blocking their entry, especially by brute force, would be seen as an act of treason from the perspective of an Arab and Islamic fraternity.

Since the dying years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, Egypt has consistently raised the legal argument that, as an occupying force, Israel has a responsibility to fulfill toward the Palestinian population; one which it should not shift or delegate to any other party

Instead, Egypt may prefer to see a return to the pre-war status quo. In the face of fierce battles and mounting casualties, Israel may indeed fall short of controlling the entire Gaza Strip, let alone eliminating the Hamas leadership. But if Israel opts to withdraw its ground forces from Gaza, this will most likely be accompanied with the imposition of an even stricter blockade on the strip, depriving its now-displaced and battered civilian population of food, medicine, fuel, and other essential needs. This will inevitably shift the responsibility of providing the basic needs of the people of Gaza to Egypt. Since the dying years of Hosni Mubarak’s reign, Egypt has consistently raised the legal argument that, as an occupying force, Israel has a responsibility to fulfill toward the Palestinian population; one which it should not shift or delegate to any other party. Indeed, the restrictions Egypt imposed on the movement of people and on goods through the Rafah crossing sprang from this logic. Restructuring the crossing will, at a minimum, place an administrative burden on Egypt’s inefficient and overloaded bureaucracy. It could amount to a financial burden if Egypt fails to act as a hub for international aid bound for Gaza. 

Some Israeli politicians are alternatively entertaining the idea of reoccupying Gaza indefinitely. The Israeli President Isaac Herzog said his country would likely need to maintain a “very strong” occupying force in Gaza after the war, in order to prevent the re-emergence of Hamas. Many voices in the Israeli far-right, especially among Jewish settler groups, lament Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and openly call for the depopulation of the enclave and the restoration of settlements that existed there. Likud Party MP Amit Halevi has submitted a bill that would permit freedom of movement for Israeli citizens in the Gaza Strip. Undeniably, the boundaries between far-right groups and the Likud are becoming increasingly blurred. A majority of Likud, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have dismissed the idea of the Palestinian Authority returning to Gaza after Hamas is uprooted as the governing force there. 

But if Netanyahu and his acolytes see no role for the Palestinian Authority in post-war Gaza, then what would the alternative be? Some notion of Greater Israel, perhaps. It should be noted that Netanyahu resigned as finance minister in 2005 in protest of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly some two weeks before the attacks of October 7, he brandished a map of the “New Middle East” in which Israel absorbed both Gaza and the West Bank. 

How can Egypt respond to the complications posed by the “Greater Israel” scenario? Israel’s expansion would strike a blow to Palestinian aspirations to form a viable, independent state. If that expansion is coupled with mass expulsion of Palestinians, or another Nakba, it would have disastrous consequences for domestic and regional stability. Arab and Egyptian inaction has been, and would further be, costly. But any meaningful action on Egypt’s part to bar Israel from liquidating the Palestinian cause could jeopardize the peace treaty and other forms of bilateral cooperation like the gas deal between the two nations. Peace with Israel has for long been a main component of Egypt’s national security strategy. For decades, it strove to maintain its existence, and contain the repercussions resulting from Israeli-Palestinian tensions. But the stakes have never been higher. Egypt would be compelled to respond to a situation in which the terminal loss of Palestinian territories and rights seems imminent; if not on ethical grounds, then for the huge impact this would have on domestic and regional stability.  

Since the war broke out, Egypt’s officials and diplomats have been busy rejecting ideas for the post-war status of Gaza that they deem harmful to Egypt’s national interest. These included a renewed Israeli occupation of Gaza, a proposal to manage security in Gaza until the Palestinian Authority can take over, and, of course, the resettlement of Palestinians in other countries. Cairo, however, needs to exert more direct diplomatic efforts in the direction of a feasible, alternative vision. In the absence of such a vision, Israel will have the leverage to turn its fanciful plans for the future of Gaza into a fait accompli, possibly before long.

Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political scholar and writer who focuses on the international relations and comparative politics of the Middle East.


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