Egypt acts to protect Sinai as Israel starts Rafah invasion

Cairo unites Bedouins and tribesmen to boost security in the face of a possible influx of Gaza residents escaping the horrors of war and starvation

An Egyptian army M60 main battle tank and an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) is deployed near the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024.
An Egyptian army M60 main battle tank and an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) is deployed near the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024.

Egypt acts to protect Sinai as Israel starts Rafah invasion

The Israeli invasion of Rafah has made Egypt's worst fears come true that could see an influx of Palestinian refugees flood into the Sinai. It had been worried about this possibility from the very beginning and has been working hard to prevent this scenario from unfolding.

In the weeks before the invasion, Egyptian authorities had been taking measures in the Sinai to protect against this. They recently unified the tribes of the northeastern Egyptian territory, which abuts both Israel and Gaza. On 1 May, Egypt announced the formation of The Association of Arab Tribes, bringing together Sinai's tribes—who have great influence in Sinai and other parts of Egypt—and Bedouins under one umbrella for the first time.

They had previously assisted the Egyptian army and police in battles against a branch of the Islamic State (IS) in the past decade, providing the Egyptian army with key intelligence about IS hideouts in the Sinai desert and also fighting alongside them during counter-terrorism operations.

These same tribesmen would constitute a line of defence should Palestinians spill into Egyptian territory. "The association will be ready to defend Sinai, having warned against the displacement of the people of Gaza into it," Mustafa Bakri, a member of the Egyptian parliament and the association's spokesman, told Al Majalla.

While Bakri did not specify what measures the association would take to prevent the displacement of Palestinians into Egyptian territory, he said the 10,000-strong force would play an "important role" in defending Sinai. These tribes enjoy great influence in Sinai and other parts of Egypt.

Regional danger

Egypt vehemently opposes the Israeli invasion of Rafah, having expressed its fears on numerous occasions since the beginning of the war. On 6 May, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry warned against the dangers the invasion posed to the people crammed in Rafah, Egypt, and the greater region.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has flagged this danger in almost all his meetings with foreign officials since the beginning of the war, including most recently during a meeting with the emir of Kuwait on 30 April.

The day before, he warned US President Joe Biden in a phone call that military escalation in Rafah would worsen the humanitarian situation there. More than 1 million Palestinians have been crammed into Rafah after having been told to go there for their own safety after fleeing their homes in the centre and northern parts of Gaza.

A surge of desperate Palestinian refugees into Sinai will put the few Egyptian army troops now stationed on the Egyptian side of the 12-kilometre (7.5 miles) border between Sinai and Gaza in an embarrassing situation.

REUTERS/Saleh Salem
Displaced Palestinians, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, sit outside a tent at the border with Egypt amid fears of an Israeli ground assault in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 18, 2024.

When Hamas militants blew up part of the border wall between Gaza and the Sinai in January 2008, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians crossed into Egypt. However, Egyptian troops did not fire on them and are unlikely to do so if the situation presents itself in this war.

This effectively means that the Sinai could possibly turn into a permanent refugee camp for Palestinians. Hamas could then turn the camp into a military base to launch attacks against Israel, which could potentially unravel Egypt's peace treaty with it.

Signed in 1979, the agreement limits Israeli troop presence on the borderline along the Sinai on Gaza's side. The Palestinian Authority managed the security of the 14-kilometre-long borderline, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, before Hamas overran Gaza in 2007.

Tightening the siege

For its part, Israel is insisting on controlling the corridor, especially as it lays siege to Hamas's remaining battalions in Rafah. It believes that the militant group receives its arms supplies through a network of underground tunnels along the border with Egypt.

In the past few weeks, several Israeli intelligence officers were sent to Cairo to allay its fears that an invasion of Rafah would result in Palestinians being pushed out of Gaza into Egypt. Afterwards, Israel announced that Palestinians in the eastern part of Rafah should evacuate to other parts of Gaza like Mawasi.

Despite the assurances, Egypt still believes that Palestinians facing such dire living conditions and fleeing for their lives will inevitably turn to Egypt as their only escape from the horror.

Israel now occupies the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing—Gaza's only entry point into Egypt and the main entry point for humanitarian and relief aid into the war-torn, hunger-ravaged Palestinian territory.

This will bring the flow of humanitarian and relief aid from Egypt into Gaza—usually dwarfed by the huge needs of the coastal enclave's population of 2.3 million—into a screeching halt. All this creates conditions for the exodus of those in Rafah to Egypt.

Workers build a large cement fence near the border with Gaza, which Egypt says will be a 'logistics zone' to receive aid for Gaza.

Bracing for the worst

The Egyptian army has already fortified the border fence with Gaza, having constructed a half-concrete and half-metal wall in the area. Egyptian troop presence increased noticeably in North Sinai following Hamas' 7 October attacks on settlements in southern Israel, with army tanks deployed in different parts of Sinai's desert on the way to the border with Gaza.

Egyptian special operations forces are now present in different locations along the border with Gaza. Security analysts say a scaled-up security presence in the Sinai is important to fend off danger at this critical time.

"The problem is that Israel wants to force the people of Gaza to escape to Egypt," retired Egyptian army general Nasr Salem told Al Majalla.

"This makes it necessary for Egypt to take all measures to protect its land," he added.

Development surge

The Sinai—a 60,000-square-kilometre territory in northeastern Egypt—has remained largely empty and underdeveloped for hundreds of years. It is now inhabited by around 600,000 people—mostly Bedouins and tribes that have lived there for a long time.

Worried that the vast, empty landscape could attract militant groups, the Egyptian government has unveiled plans to accelerate development, hoping this would coax millions of Egyptians to move there from overcrowded cities in the Nile Delta and valley.

"Sinai should have been developed a long time ago," Samir Ghattas, the head of the Middle East Centre for Strategic Studies think tank, told Al Majalla.

The government recently announced the completion of New Rafah City—an urban community just 7 kilometres from the border with Gaza and Israel. The new city will house 75,000 people and is one of several planned for north and central Sinai. These communities will also be accompanied by gigantic agricultural, industrial, and service projects.

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