Israel and Egypt in growing diplomatic row over Rafah border crossing

<span>Israeli tanks on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt last week.</span><span>Photograph: Israeli army/AFP/Getty</span>
Israeli tanks on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt last week.Photograph: Israeli army/AFP/Getty

Israel and Egypt are embroiled in a growing diplomatic row over the Rafah border crossing after Israel’s takeover of the Gaza side of the crossing, amid warnings Cairo may be planning to downgrade relations.

In recent days Egypt has announced it will no longer participate in allowing the transit of aid into Gaza and said it planned to join the genocide case brought by South Africa against Israel at the UN’s top court.

Israel’s largest Arab neighbour has been growing increasingly angry over its conduct in the Gaza war, which has brought relations to a point of friction unprecedented since a peace treaty signed in 1979.

The Rafah crossing between Egypt and southern Gaza has been a vital route for aid to the coastal territory, where a humanitarian crisis has deepened and some people are at risk of famine. On 7 May Israel seized control of the crossing as it stepped up its military campaign around Rafah. Since then aid has accumulated on the Egyptian side.

Israel said it was up to Egypt to reopen the crossing and allow humanitarian relief into Gaza, prompting Cairo to denounce what it described as “desperate attempts” to shift blame for the blockage of aid.

Israel’s capture of the crossing is widely seen as being in breach of the Philadelphi accord, which was added to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty in 2005 after the evacuation of Israeli settlements in Gaza and was designed to regulate the border between Gaza and Egypt.

Prior to Israel’s takeover of the crossing, Egyptian officials warned publicly that any such move was a red line that would put the peace treaty at risk.

“The key to preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is now in the hands of our Egyptian friends,” Israel’s foreign affairs minister, Israel Katz, said in comments released by his office.

Katz said he had spoken with his British and German counterparts about “the need to persuade Egypt to reopen the Rafah crossing”.

Egypt has said the crossing has remained open from its side throughout the conflict that began between Israel and Hamas on 7 October. Cairo has been one of the mediators in stalled ceasefire talks between Israel and Hamas. But its relationship with Israel has come under strain during the conflict, especially since the Israeli advance in Rafah.

The UN and other international aid agencies said the closing of two crossings into southern Gaza – Rafah and Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom – had virtually cut off the territory from outside aid.

On Wednesday Israeli media reports said Cairo, whose general intelligence directorate has long acted as a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, could withdraw from ceasefire negotiations.

“The situation with Egypt right now is the worst it’s been since the war started,” one official told the Haaretz newspaper. “At the beginning of the war, the Egyptians showed understanding toward our position. Now they work deliberately to get in our way and to try to force an end to the war on us.”

Egypt’s leadership has been forced into a complex balancing act by the war in Gaza. On the one hand, there is widespread sympathy for the plight of Palestinians among ordinary Egyptians and the political elite. Set against that, however, is Egypt’s determination not to be complicit in what it sees as Israeli efforts aimed at displacing Palestinians out of Gaza into Egypt – a long-term concern in Cairo. Nor does Egypt want to be seen as accepting a new situation in which Israel fully controls all of Gaza’s borders, including with Egypt.

“At government level sentiment is pretty closely aligned with popular feeling,” HA Hellyer, an expert on Middle East security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Royal United Services Institute, told the Guardian.

“There is a great deal of anger. Whereas in 2014 there was a lot of public expression of antipathy towards Hamas that is not visible in this conflict,” said Hellyer, who is in Cairo. “If there is a quandary it is because Egyptians want to help Gaza but the overwhelming political consideration is that Egypt does not want to be seen as complicit in ethnic cleansing or complicit in putting to bed the Palestinian cause, which is what would happen f the population of Gaza is cleared out.”

While Hellyer does not believe the peace treaty between the two countries is at risk, he sees the recent moves by Cairo, including its decision to intervene in the South African case at the international court of justice (ICJ), as aimed at signalling there can be no cooperation in the current circumstances.

“The ICJ stuff is partly about Rafah, but it is also the culmination that has seen Egypt more try to press indirectly and then more directly, by talking to the US and other members of the international community, to pressure Israel over the war. It is another tool in [the] box that reflects Egypt’s anger.”