Egypt tight-lipped over Israeli takeover of Gaza buffer zone

<span>Israeli forces near the Gaza-Egypt border on Wednesday after the IDF announced it has gained full operational control of the Philadelphi corridor.</span><span>Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Israeli forces near the Gaza-Egypt border on Wednesday after the IDF announced it has gained full operational control of the Philadelphi corridor.Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

Egypt has reacted with a wall of silence to the Israeli takeover of a buffer zone in southern Gaza, in apparent defiance of a decades-old peace agreement, as Cairo sought to keep a lid on simmering public anger while also avoiding an escalation in tensions with Israel.

Israel said on Wednesday that its forces had gained “operational” control over the Philadelphi corridor – the Israeli military’s code name for the 9-mile-long (14km) strip of land along the Gaza-Egypt border. Under the terms of the 1979 peace accord between Egypt and Israel, each side is allowed to deploy only a small number of troops or border guards in a demilitarised zone that stretches along the entire Israel-Egypt border and encompasses the corridor.

Related: Israel in effective control of entire Gaza land border after taking Philadelphi Corridor in south

Although Egyptian officials have sounded the alarm for months about the risks of Israeli forces seizing control of the corridor, Cairo did not issue an official comment.

On a visit to Beijing, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, called for increased humanitarian assistance to Gaza, and reiterated his country’s longstanding opposition to “any attempt at forcing Palestinians to forcibly flee their land”.

Mohamed Abdel Salem, a former major general whose 40-year career included heading a centre of Israeli studies within the Egyptian army, said Israel’s actions had brought the two countries closer to a “a war that we don’t need and one that Egypt has done well to avoid”.

“It’s not in our interests,” he said. “We are already suffering economically; there’s no need to open a new front. We’re not looking for a major war or more conflict. The best thing for us now would be to end this violence and to resume negotiations.”


The Israeli takeover of the border came days after a rare exchange of fire between Egyptian and Israeli troops at the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza that resulted in the death of two young Egyptian conscripts. The deaths created anger among the crowds in the rural villages where they were buried without anyone from the army in attendance.

“We want justice,” said one relative of 22-year-old Abdullah Ramadan, who was buried in his home town of Fayoum, south of Cairo. “When will his blood be avenged? When will we see justice for him?”, she asked, requesting anonymity because of fears over publicly criticising the government.

Ramadan’s friend and neighbour, 24-year-old Mohamed Elmasry, said their village was “engulfed in sorrow” because the young soldier had been buried without military honours.

“At the funeral, I saw only religious scholars and people who came from Cairo to stand with the family,” he said. “All of Egypt is angry about Abdullah’s death, while they mourn and rage against the massacres in Gaza.”

The gulf between public anger over issues such as Israeli relations and border security – long considered touchstone issues of national pride – and the limited response from the highest echelons of the Egyptian regime has fuelled a sense that the regime wishes to deflect attention from Israeli violations of Egypt’s red lines.

HA Hellyer, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said: “This is the worst period in Israeli-Egyptian relations in a very long time. But I think, on one level, Cairo and other capitals have to recognise that Israel’s political elite is developing in a way that makes it likely we will have multiple crises like these in the future.”

Egypt, he said, had chosen to express its anger through actions such as joining South Africa’s case against Israel at the international court of justice earlier in the month.

“I don’t think leverage to alter Israeli behaviour is in Cairo; it’s in Washington,” Hellyer said. “But Washington is refusing to utilise it.”

Related: UN’s top court orders Israel to immediately halt Rafah offensive

Mohannad Sabry, an expert on the Sinai peninsula, the Egyptian landmass bordering Israel, said the Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi corridor and the Rafah crossing had humiliated the Egyptian government.

“Of course these incidents are embarrassing, but the concerns on the Egyptian side are not about the Israelis, but about their strength to rule over Egypt and how to control public anger within the country,” he said.

Some Egyptian opposition figures have expressed their discontent, including Hamdeen Sabahi, who earlier in May called for the Camp David accords that led to the peace treaty with Egypt to be dissolved and for Israel’s ambassador to be withdrawn. But any attempt at public protest has been met with a fierce crackdown, including the frequent use of terrorism charges against protesters.

The Cairo-based organisation the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms has tracked at least 120 arrests since October connected to protests over Gaza.

“This feeling of anger is huge. We saw it at the soldiers’ funerals,” said Mohammed Lotfy, the ECRF’s executive director. “But there’s a disconnect between the sentiment on the street and on the formal side; the regime doesn’t want to escalate.”

The Egyptian authorities, he added, fear that allowing protests on the issue could quickly spiral into demonstrations about the rising cost of living, high inflation and spiralling poverty.

“The government fears that today people will protest for Gaza, tomorrow they’ll protest the economy. The Egyptian government has a lot to fear from public anger at the moment, and they don’t want people to get used to protesting,” he said.

A journalist in Cairo contributed reporting