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An end to Egypt's leverage: Why Cairo opposes Israel's control of Rafah crossing

Analysts suggest the US-built pier and Israel's hold on all entry points is a heavy blow to historic Egyptian influence in Gaza
A satellite image shows the floating pier and approaching aid trucks on the Gaza shoreline on 18 May 2024 (Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters)
A satellite image shows the floating pier and approaching aid trucks on the Gaza shoreline on 18 May 2024 (Maxar Technologies/Handout via Reuters)

For decades, Egypt has prided itself on being a powerful player in the Gaza Strip. Now, with the Rafah crossing in Israeli hands and a US-built pier funnelling aid in by sea, questions are being raised about whether Egypt really has much significance for the Gaza conflict anymore.

Gaza’s Rafah crossing with Egypt has been closed for two weeks, after Israel seized the terminal in a ground operation and Cairo refused to open it from the Sinai side.

Meanwhile, a US-built floating pier in central Gaza began receiving aid shipments on Friday via a maritime corridor from Cyprus.

The United Nations warned the pier must not be a substitute for land crossings, but with all other routes controlled and regularly blocked by Israel, aid workers may have no choice.

Egypt has long been a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1979 it became the first Arab country to recognise Israel, and has long served as a mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

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Yet, for the first time in 45 years, Egypt seems to have lost its leverage in the conflict.

Until 7 May, the Rafah border crossing had been the only land crossing not directly controlled by Israel following its disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

It had also been the main conduit for life-saving aid to the war-torn enclave since Israel's war on Gaza began in October, despite repeated Israeli attacks and restrictions.

'If the Rafah crossing is closed permanently or for an extended time it necessarily reduces Egypt's leverage'

- Robert Springborg

“Israeli control of Rafah is obviously a major blow for Egypt, because it contradicts the 1979 peace treaty and its annexes and it infringes on Egypt's sovereignty and ties with Gaza,” said Riccardo Fabiani, at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organisation.

The Rafah crossing is located in an area designated as demilitarised in the 1979 treaty and a 2005 agreement between Egypt and Israel.

The peace treaty and the 2005 accord allow troops to be deployed in the crossing area only after mutual agreement between the two sides.

But Egypt has not officially confirmed that any prior agreement took place and anonymous official sources briefed the media that Egypt received only “hours' notice” prior to the operation. 

Trading blame

For the past two weeks, Israel and Egypt have been trading blame for the closure of the Rafah crossing, and aid trucks carrying food and medical supplies for Palestinians in Gaza have been piling up on the Egyptian side of the border.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday said that the Rafah crossing is closed due to the presence of troops and operations in the vicinity of the terminal, which he said threaten the safety of aid convoys.

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This came after Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said Israel wants to use control of Rafah "to tighten the siege of the enclave”.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has laid the blame on Egypt, saying last week that Cairo was holding Gaza "hostage" by refusing to work with his government to reopen the crossing. 

Fabiani argued that Egypt's refusal to work with Israel to reopen the crossing is a “risky strategy”.

“By stopping the flow of humanitarian aid, the situation on the ground in Gaza risks deteriorating further,” he told Middle East Eye.

“Egypt's calculation seems to be that this deterioration will push western governments to step up pressure on Israel and force it to release control of the border crossing,” he added.

“So, until Israel gives in, Egypt is unlikely to collaborate. But this approach seems risky and it's unclear if it will work.”

Ineffective pier

According to US officials, the new floating pier, which became operational on Friday and is called "Trident", will help with the additional delivery of 90-150 truckloads to Gaza each day.

So far, only 10 truckloads have been transferred to a UN World Food Programme warehouse in central Gaza's Deir al-Balah on Friday. The UN says 500 trucks of aid are needed daily to address the acute needs of Gaza, where famine is spreading.

“The pier is more performative than effective and Rafah remains an essential piece of the puzzle to deliver sufficient aid and avoid a further deterioration in the already terrible conditions on the ground,” said Fabiani.

No aid was received on Sunday or Monday, a UN official told Reuters, while only five trucks reached the warehouse on Saturday and 11 were stopped and emptied by starving Palestinians on the way. 

On Tuesday, the US said that the pier has received more than 569 metric tonnes of humanitarian aid but not all of it has reached warehouses.

A truck carries humanitarian aid across Trident Pier, a temporary pier to deliver aid, off the Gaza Strip, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, near the Gaza coast, May 19, 2024
A truck carries humanitarian aid across Trident Pier off the Gaza Strip near the Gaza coast, 19 May 2024 (Reuters)

Now that the pier seems to be the only available route for aid and Israel controls all land crossings, Egypt is faced with a conundrum. 

Robert Springborg, an Egypt expert and political scientist, said that the reopening of the Rafah crossing is inevitable.

“The American-supplied pier coupled with Israel-controlled access points into Gaza will be insufficient to supply the Gaza population, so it has to be assumed that Rafah could be reopened in the not too distant future,” he told MEE.

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“If the Rafah crossing is closed permanently or for an extended time it necessarily reduces Egypt's leverage, unless Cairo were to up the stakes by pursuing more aggressive policies toward Israel than it has to date.”  

Egyptian commentators and broadcasters have also sounded the alarm about Egypt's loss of influence on Gaza.

Amr Adib, a broadcaster on the Saudi-owned MBC Masr, known for his close ties with the Egyptian state, said in his daily programme on Saturday that Israel seeks to sideline Egypt.

"They want to weaken us politically in this process. They want to strip us of our leverage," he said.

Samir Ragheb, retired army general and security analyst hosted by Adib, concurred: “Egypt wants a Palestinian-controlled crossing based on the 2005 agreement.”

Commenting on the new pier, he said that Israel could have used Egyptian ports, like al-Arish, to transport aid to Rafah, but instead it chose to work with the US, which shares its goals for the future of Gaza.

"Egypt supports the Palestinian cause, but the crossings remain its main concern," said Ragheb.

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