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ConflictsMiddle East

What would make Egypt open its border to Palestinians?

February 14, 2024

As an Israeli military campaign causes casualties in densely crowded Rafah, near the Egyptian border, Egypt is under increasing pressure to let displaced Palestinians in.

People inspect the damage to their homes following Israeli airstrikes on February 12
Top UN humanitarian official Martin Griffiths said an Israeli assault on Rafah "could lead to a slaughter"Image: Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images

For many Egyptians, the timing is just too suspicious.

Last week, the Israeli military said it would launch an assault on Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border, where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering. There are concerns that, as more and more people are pushed up against the border, plans formulated by Israeli think tanks and leaked to media earlier in the current conflict are closer to becoming a reality. The Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, released a paper saying the conflict  was  a "unique and rare opportunity to evacuate the whole Gaza Strip."

The reported plan is something that the Egyptian government has firmly rejected, fearing that Palestinians who leave will never be allowed back. Rights organizations have equated any such "forcible transfer" as amounting to a war crime.

At the same time, a decision will soon be made by the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, as to whether Egypt gets an extended loan — somewhere between $6 billion (€5.6 billion) and $12 billion — to prop up its badly indebted economy and its currency.

"Is this blackmail?" a recent story in online Lebanese-owned newspaper Al Modon asked, speculating that Egypt could have its international debts forgiven by the IMF's key shareholders in the US and Europe if it were to host displaced Palestinians. 

Conspiracy theories

The timing and other earlier reports — including one from the UK's Financial Times that said Israeli politicians had asked European counterparts to pressure Egypt into opening borders — seem to justify those suspicions. There's even precedent: In 1991, the United States forgave Egypt around $10 billion of debt because it agreed to support a US-led coalition fighting Iraq.

But, in this case, that's not what is happening, Riccardo Fabiani, director of the North Africa project for the International Crisis Group NGO, told DW. "Unfortunately, this has been a rumor circulating for a while," Fabiani said. "It's been on social media and on the streets, with people saying the West was offering money to Egypt in return for hosting refugees."

But, Fabiani added, "there's a serious misunderstanding here. The IMF, the EU and, more generally, the West, are willing and prepared to give money to Egypt because they're very worried about the country's destabilization because of the Gaza conflict."

On top of inflation and excessive national debt, Egypt has been hard hit by the decrease in tourism to the region and insecurity on the Red Sea, Fabiani said

"Basically, with 120 million people, Egypt is too big to fail," said Ashraf Hassan, a policy associate at the US-based Century International think tank.

For Egypt, such a deal doesn't add up either, Hassan added. "I think the regime recognizes there are no economic incentives that can offset the security and political peril that might come from letting Palestinians in," Hassan said. That includes potential security risks from Palestinian militants on the Egyptian side of the border, as well as being seen to be aiding Israel in permanently displacing Gaza residents.

Army zodiac secures the entrance of the new section of the Suez Canal in Ismailia, Egypt
The blockade of the Red Sea by Yemen's Houthis has seen Egypt lose income from its Suez CanalImage: Amr Nabil/AP Photo/picture alliance

Egypt under pressure

For now, Egypt's authoritarian government is walking a fine line between popular sentiment — the public broadly supports the Palestinian cause — and long-standing security arrangements with Israel.

Last week, The Associated Press reported anonymous sources saying Egypt might drop a landmark Camp David peace treaty it signed with Israel in the late 1970s if a military campaign went ahead in Rafah. Egypt's foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, has since denied this.

"It's quite clear that suspending or dropping the peace deal would be a step too far because of the geopolitical and economic implications," Fabiani said, noting that the peace deal involves not just security cooperation with Israel but also guarantees US aid. "Right now, Egypt is also negotiating a very delicate deal with the IMF and the EU for more money. So the last thing they need is to rock the boat."

Symbolic options for Egypt to pressure Israel are more likely, he said. For example, suspending diplomatic relations or withdrawing the Egyptian ambassador from Israel.

This week's meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, offers another option.

"The meeting sends a common message," Fabiani said. "It's a way for Egypt to show the world, and in particular Israel, they are not isolated and that the breaching of Egypt's red line on Rafah is not just a problem for Egypt. It's a problem for everyone."

 Palestinians leave Rafah, in fear of an Israeli military operation, amid the ongoing conflict
Many of the 1.5 million Palestinians now in Rafah have been displaced several timesImage: Mohammed Salem/REUTERS

'Shooting at desperate women and children'

All of the experts DW spoke with agreed that what happens next at the Egypt-Gaza border depends mostly on Israel.

"Egyptian diplomats ... continue to suspect that Israel's hidden objective is to push Palestinians toward the Egyptian border," a late January briefing by International Crisis Group said. "Palestinians might even try to enter the Sinai of their own accord if Israel's actions make Gaza uninhabitable."

This would be a worst-case scenario "because it won't be a negotiated solution: It will be imposed upon Egypt," Century International's Hassan said.

"But, at that stage, there really aren't that many choices," said Mirette Mabrouk, founding director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute's Egypt program. "If Palestinians do come across the border, Egypt is going to take them in. They are not going to start shooting at desperate women and children."

In fact, local authorities in North Sinai have been preparing for this for months, readying emergency accommodation and medical aid in case it is needed, she told DW. The Wall Street Journal has previously reported that Egypt could potentially accommodate up to 100,000 people in the border areas if needed.

"It's not that Egypt can't assimilate them — the country already hosts millions of refugees from places like Syria and Sudan. It's that Egypt doesn't want to be party to another Nakba," Mabrouk said, referring to the estimated 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and were never allowed to return.

Egypt might well be willing to take in several thousand Palestinians as a kind of compromise, International Crisis Group's Fabiani said: "Because this wouldn't look as bad as just continuing to keep everybody out and it would also help Egypt save face with its own population, which has a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians but doesn't want to see any sort of [Nakba-style] permanent displacement."

The problem with asking anybody to forecast what happens next at Rafah is this, Mabrouk concluded: "It all depends on what the Israelis do next — and nobody is really holding them to account. Everybody else is just reacting."

US warns Israel over planned ground offensive in Rafah

Edited by: Anne Thomas

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.