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An Israeli military spokesman on Tuesday offered some advice to Palestinians seeking to flee his country’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip: “get out” through the “open” border with Egypt.
The problem is that the Rafah crossing in the south of the Palestinian enclave was closed, with news outlets reporting that it had been damaged after an Israeli air strike nearby.
The office of military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hecht later issued a clarification while the Israel Defense Forces said there had been “no official call by Israel for residents of the Gaza Strip to exit into Egypt”.
But his comments underscored how the conflict ignited by Saturday’s deadly Hamas incursion into Israel — the worst attack on the Jewish state since it was founded — quickly threatens to spill over its borders. In particular it highlights Cairo’s long-running concern that Israel wants to push its troubles dealing with Hamas-controlled Gaza on to Egypt.
“Israel, as the occupying force, has responsibilities towards Gaza under international law. It cannot give these up” and shift the problem on to Egypt, said Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “seeking to broaden the crisis and put pressure not just on the Gazans but on neighbouring countries too”, he added.
Netanyahu has advised Gazans to “leave”, even though Egypt is the only logical place they can go to, given that they cannot flee into Israel.
Egypt has worked with Israel to keep the more than 2mn Gazans packed inside their teeming coastal enclave. Cairo controls Rafah, the main crossing for any Palestinian seeking to enter the outside world. Egypt and Israel co-ordinate extensively over border security and there is trust between their security agencies.
Cairo is also acutely aware of the sympathy that many of Egypt’s 100mn population have towards the Palestinian desire for statehood. On Sunday, a day after the mass Hamas incursion in which at least 900 Israelis were killed, an Egyptian policeman killed two Israeli tourists in the city of Alexandria.
The first Arab state to normalise relations with Israel in 1980, Egypt has since played an important mediation role in wars between Israel and Hamas by working to secure ceasefires. Cairo is expected to play a similar role this time too.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was unclear when negotiations would start.
“The Israelis haven’t moved into Gaza yet, and the ground offensive has not started,” Hanna said, referring to a possible Israeli invasion of Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 assault.
“Egypt will eventually play this [mediation] role in some form or fashion, but this conflict is unprecedented and we shouldn’t assume it will follow pre-existing scripts.”
The complicating factor this time is that more than 100 Israeli hostages are in the hands of Hamas and its allies. The militant group has threatened to execute a hostage every time Israel bombs a residential area without advance warning.
“We don’t have a reference point for that” from previous wars, said Hanna. “Pressure from within Israel on Netanyahu to negotiate might impact when the mediation starts.”
The role as a conflict mediator has helped shore up Egypt’s international standing, according to analysts. Surrounded by conflict and failed states in Libya and Sudan, Egypt’s record in securing truces has also helped mute western criticism over its human rights record.
Egypt is making preparations to receive the wounded and send humanitarian aid into Gaza when it becomes possible. At the same time, Israeli television reported that Israel had warned Egypt it would bomb any aid trucks sent to relieve the pressure on Gaza, which on Tuesday endured another day of Israeli bombing.
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes in Gaza, where electricity is intermittent and access to food restricted. Health officials in the Mediterranean territory said 765 Palestinians had been killed in the past four days.
The confused statement from Hecht was far from the first time an Israeli had suggested Palestinians go to Egypt. Right-wing politicians and commentators within Israel had periodically argued that Gazans could be resettled in the Sinai peninsula.
Egypt has responded through state-controlled media. The Al Qahera News channel said on social media on Monday that senior Egyptian sources had told it that “Egyptian sovereignty” was not to be breached and that the “occupying authorities are responsible for creating humanitarian corridors to save the people of Gaza”.
Also this week, a senior Egyptian TV presenter, Lamis al-Hadidy, said taking in Gazans would “empty the Palestinian cause of meaning” and “only serve the interests of the occupation”.
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