Egypt's Rafah crossing: Deadlocks block Gaza lifeline

Egypt is unwilling to open its border crossing to Gaza despite the escalating situation. In the run-up to elections, fears over permanent resettlement outweigh humanitarian concerns

The aid is urgently needed, the WHO stressed on Tuesday, as Israel's siege of Gaza has capped water, food, and fuel supplies (photo: DW)
The aid is urgently needed, the WHO stressed on Tuesday, as Israel's siege of Gaza has capped water, food, and fuel supplies (photo: DW)


Gaza's border crossing with Egypt, the only one connecting the Gaza Strip to a country other than Israel, could become the sole lifeline for people living in the Palestinian territory — if it were opened.

Hundreds of trucks loaded with medicine, food, water, and humanitarian aid are waiting on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, which joins the far south of the Gaza Strip with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), supplies for up to 300,000 people are ready to enter anytime.

The aid is urgently needed, the WHO stressed on Tuesday, as Israel's siege of Gaza has capped water, food, and fuel supplies.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly agreed to develop a plan to get humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza. However, neither details of such a plan nor a timeline were announced.

Hoping for safe passage

Western countries, the United States above all, have been trying to broker the entry of humanitarian goods into Gaza in exchange for allowing Palestinians into Egypt. On Gaza's side of the border crossing, thousands of Palestinians, some with dual citizenship, have been waiting for days, hoping for a safe passage into Egypt.

The US, Israel's top ally, has been pushing for Egypt to open the border crossing, offering debt relief in exchange. Egypt is currently grappling with a foreign currency shortage and has seen its currency lose half its value in a year.

However, it remains unclear if Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, would allow Palestinians to cross. Ismail Haniyeh, the political leader of Hamas, said in a televised address on Saturday that "there will be no migration from Gaza to Egypt."

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday, Jordan's King Abdullah II said neither Jordan nor Egypt would take in more Palestinians. This marks a "red line," he told DW in Berlin.

Egypt has kept the Rafah border crossing closed due to Israel targeting the crossing point as part of its Gaza bombardment following the October 7 Hamas terror attacks.

Hamas, which Germany, the European Union, the US, and several other nations designate a terrorist organization, killed at least 1,400 Israelis and foreigners and kidnapped nearly 200 individuals, most of them reportedly civilians, in an unprecedented multi-front assault. Israel has responded with airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian officials say have killed at least 2,700 people and left more than 10,000 injured.

'Obligation to help'

Amr Magdi, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, called on the Israeli authorities to reverse their decision to ban electricity, water, internet, fuel, and food in and out of Gaza.

"Cutting off vital aid and services constitutes collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza and will cost more lives, and starvation as a method of warfare is prohibited," he told DW.

Magdi also urged Egypt to open the Rafah crossing immediately. "Egypt is not a party to this military conflict, but it is a party to Geneva Conventions," he said, referring to the international treaty on humanitarian law that regulates the conduct of armed conflict and seeks to limit its effects.

"[Egypt] has an obligation to allow and facilitate aid delivery just as much as it has an obligation to allow fleeing civilians to enter to safety. However, Israel has an obligation to allow those civilians to go back to Gaza once the military escalations cease."

Mada Masr, Egypt's last major independent news outlet, reported last week that Egypt was setting up tents and security cordons along a 14-kilometer (8.7-mile) buffer zone next to the border crossing. This indicates the country is preparing for incoming refugees despite different rhetoric from the Egyptian government.

The Rafah crossing is one of three exit points from the Gaza Strip. The other two crossing points, at Erez and Kerem Shalom, lead into Israel and remain closed.

Fear of resettlement

"Egyptian authorities are afraid that Israel is working on a plan to resettle Palestinians in the Sinai [Peninsula]," Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, Associate Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, told DW.

"Egypt has rejected such a request for decades, and it would be hard to communicate to the Egyptian public now, even if [opening the crossing] was accompanied by extensive debt relief from the United States," Fuchs said.

Still top of mind for many Egyptians is the memory of Gazans storming the Rafah crossing in 2008 in search of food and supplies following a months-long blockade. "It is a top priority for Egypt to avoid such scenes at all costs," Fuchs said.

Consequentially, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi continues to stress that national security is his "primary responsibility" and called on Gazans to stay "steadfast and remain on their land." He also indicated it would be difficult to know who of the refugees from Gaza supported Hamas.

Hamas shares historic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt in the 1920s and subsequently banned after el-Sissi ousted the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi in 2013.

Fear of upsetting voters

"El-Sissi is balancing domestic and regional interests at a critical time," Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the UK-based think tank Chatham House, told DW.

Egypt is holding a presidential election in December amid a dire economic situation. Whether to open the Rafah crossing, which would allow aid into Gaza and Palestinians into Egypt, could become key to the campaigns in the run-up to the election.

While the most promising oppositional candidate, Ahmed Altantawy, dropped out on Friday due to a lack of required endorsements, the National Election Authority on Monday announced the three further candidates entering the race to challenge the incumbent.

However, observers have no doubt that el-Sissi will be re-elected for a third term that will see him in office until 2030. "Although [el-Sissi's] victory is expected, he is looking to prevent the long-term buildup of refugees in the Sinai," Vakil said.

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Published: 18 Oct 2023, 8:52 AM