In this period of intense Israeli military preparation following Hamas’s horrific terror attack on Oct. 7, and equally intense diplomatic activities surrounding the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, a crucial question has centered on Egypt’s role.
Why has Egypt appeared hesitant to relieve the humanitarian distress affecting Palestinian civilians on the other side of its eight -mile border with Gaza, especially since there really is no alternative to Cairo helping deal with the crisis?
Finding an answer lies in Egypt’s own challenges, and whether a nation with its own serious security problems and economic problems can be enough of a safe haven for others. Egypt has, along with Israel, blockaded Gaza on and off for 16 years, containing the enclave’s largely Muslim population while Cairo deals with its own insurgent threat in the area. It must worry about the political complications that could come from a large influx of Palestinians. Inevitably, Egypt will in some sense have to pivot, now, and treat those living a few miles away as neighbors in crisis, rather than a problem to be penned in.
The announcement on Wednesday that Israel has agreed to allow a batch of humanitarian supplies to enter Gaza from Egypt is surely welcome, as the aid will finally begin to address an extremely dire situation on the ground. Poverty and social-economic distress in Gaza were already serious problems before this war, with more than two million people crowded into one of the most densely populated areas of the world.
When I visited Gaza regularly in the early 1980s as part of my responsibilities then in the U.S. Embassy in Israel, the crisis was already evident — high unemployment, subsistence living conditions and a pervasive lack of hope. Over 16 years of Hamas’s control have worsened the situation considerably. Now, the Israeli siege in response to the Hamas attacks, including cuts to power, water supplies and communications amid continuing bombardment, has created even more catastrophic conditions.
Egypt has no love lost for Hamas, the Palestinian movement that is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian authorities have had a fractured relationship with the Brotherhood since its founding in 1928, including several serious and violent confrontations. Elements of a Brotherhood offshoot in the army — the Egyptian Islamic Jihad — were responsible for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. The movement helped influence militants such as Ayman al-Zawahri, who became a leading figure in Al Qaeda. Egypt’s self-interest has been to keep the Brotherhood in check, to deal with other extremist elements in Sinai and thus to be wary of Hamas, centered just across the border in Gaza.
At the same time, Egypt has managed to retain channels of communication with Hamas that have proven to be extremely important during the Islamist group’s frequent confrontations with Israel. Working alone, or in conjunction with Qatar, Turkey and Germany, among others, Egypt has jumped in early during these conflicts to help pave the way for a cease-fire and to start thinking about the post-conflict situation. This occurred in the extended Israel-Hamas war in 2014 and the confrontation in 2021. For this reason, and by virtue of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula sitting on the other side of the Rafah crossing point, attention has focused on Egypt as a prime player in the effort to address the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Egypt has maintained tight control over its border with Gaza since Hamas took power there in 2007, including periods when the border was closed to the movement of people. Since the Hamas attack on Israel, Egypt has agreed to allow some humanitarian supplies in but has rejected a humanitarian corridor across the border to allow people to leave via Rafah. Egypt and Israel have also not reached agreement to allow foreign passport holders, including Palestinians, to leave through Rafah.
The diplomats now dealing with Egypt need to contend with at least three factors.
First, Egypt continues to face a serious security situation of its own in the Sinai Peninsula. Extremists, believed to be associated with Al Qaeda and ISIS, have been engaged in a decade-long insurgency against the Egyptian government. Operating in a large area, with difficult terrain and a small population, the insurgents have yet to be fully defeated. Egyptians may believe that the introduction of a large, traumatized refugee population in Sinai could offer the militants a potential pool of new recruits. Egypt also may fear that Hamas operatives could mingle among the refugees, enter Egypt, and present an additional security threat.
Second, many Palestinians oppose the idea of leaving Gaza, even if it is announced as a temporary measure. Gaza is populated by more than a million descendants of refugees from the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49, and this population is therefore sensitive to the possibility that what is announced as a temporary relocation could become permanent. Egypt is also sensitive to this possibility and does not want to house a large Palestinian refugee population for an extended period.
Third, Egypt is a country with a large population of impoverished people. It already hosts hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees; even if the international community assumes responsibility for temporary Gazan refugees, Egypt may worry that they will remain for an extended period of time. Even with outside assistance, this will drain Egyptian resources and create further strain on the Egyptian economy and an additional security problem of its own, as young people in the camps become frustrated with the situation. It also does not want to be seen, by hosting Gazan refugees, as tacitly supporting Israel’s policy toward Palestinians.
Despite these challenges, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and others nonetheless are working with Egypt to create conditions for humanitarian relief to reach the Palestinians in southern Gaza who left their homes after Israel’s massing of troops on the Gaza Strip border and warning of an imminent military action. While Egypt has said it is ready to ease the movement through Rafah of food, water, medical supplies and other emergency necessities, a complicating factor moving forward will be how to prevent those supplies from reaching Hamas and inadvertently supporting its terrorist activities; it is not always possible to distinguish between ordinary civilians and Hamas fighters dressed in civilian clothes. And, if international aid workers delivering the goods are unarmed, they could be threatened by armed Hamas fighters anxious to hijack the humanitarian supplies.
The uncertainty of continued humanitarian access will pose a serious dilemma for American policymakers. As President Biden has made clear, the United States strongly supports efforts to meet the basic needs of Palestinians in Gaza. However, continued Israeli bombing and the likelihood of a ground offensive could make the provision of humanitarian supplies dangerous and put United Nations and other aid workers in jeopardy. A humanitarian deal could collapse even before it gets off the ground.
The administration therefore needs to plan now for meeting Gaza’s immediate needs — which might require an early call on Israel for a humanitarian cease-fire — but must also develop a plan for the day after. Egypt will play a major role in any day-after plan, not only because of its proximity to Gaza, but also because of the weight it carries in the Arab world. While Egypt will eschew a direct role in governing Gaza, even temporarily, it needs to be consulted closely on any transitional arrangement put in place.
Daniel C. Kurtzer was U.S. ambassador to Egypt from 1997 to 2001 and ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005. He is now a professor at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
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