Egypt deploys 40 tanks to beef up border with Gaza as Rafah offensive looms

Images show barbed wire, expanded fortifications on Sinai side of border, with Cairo fearing that Gazans could seek shelter from IDF operation by attempting to cross into Egypt

The sun sets over Egypt across the border from the tent camps of displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2023. (Photo by AFP)
The sun sets over Egypt across the border from the tent camps of displaced Palestinians in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on December 31, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt has sent about 40 tanks and armored personnel carriers to northeastern Sinai within the past two weeks as part of a series of measures to bolster security on its border with Gaza, two Egyptian security sources said.

The deployment took place ahead of the expansion of Israeli military operations around Gaza’s southern city of Rafah, where much of its population has sought safety, sharpening Egyptian fears that Palestinians could attempt to flee the offensive by attempting to rush the Egyptian border.

Stepped up Israeli airstrikes have pounded the city, with over a million Palestinians crammed into the city awaiting a full-scale offensive with the rest of the enclave in ruins and nowhere left to run.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said it had ordered the military to develop a plan to evacuate Rafah and destroy four Hamas battalions it says are deployed there.

Following the outbreak of war on October 7, Egypt constructed a concrete border wall that reaches six meters into the ground and is topped with barbed wire. It has also built berms and enhanced surveillance at border posts, the security sources said.

Last month Egypt’s state information service detailed some of the measures it had taken on its border in response to Israeli suggestions that Hamas had obtained weapons smuggled from Egypt. Three lines of barriers made any above-ground or underground smuggling impossible, it said.

Palestinians displaced by the Israel air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip sit next to the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (AP/Hatem Ali)

Images shared with Reuters by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an independent group, appear to show the installation of the wall in December, with several berms running behind it.

Later pictures, which the group said were taken in early February, appear to show three vertical layers of coiled barbed wire being installed on top of the wall. Reuters was not able to independently verify the images.

Satellite images from January and December also show some new construction along the 13 kilometer (8 mile) border close to Rafah and the extension of a wall to the sea’s edge at its northern end.

Egyptian and Israeli authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Egypt’s military over the last several years has consolidated its grip in northern Sinai as it battles an Islamist insurgency that escalated a decade ago.

People gather around the carcass of a Palestinian police vehicle that was reportedly destroyed in Israeli bombardment in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 10, 2024. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Well before the current war in Gaza broke out, Egypt said it had destroyed tunnels through which smuggling to Gaza had previously flourished, and had cleared a buffer zone near the border, displacing tens of thousands of people and destroying thousands of homes.

On the approach to the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, the remains of razed houses can been seen along with miles of concrete walls that have been built parallel to the sea and near roads close to the border.

Egypt and Israel have been at peace for more than four decades and in recent years have extended ties through Israeli exports of natural gas and security coordination around their shared border and the Gaza Strip.

The two countries have maintained a blockade on Gaza, strictly limiting the movement of people and goods across its borders, after Hamas took control there in 2007. Israel, which has been repeatedly attacked from Gaza, says its blockade is necessary to keep Hamas from building up military infrastructure.

But the relationship has come under strain due to Israel’s military operation in Gaza, unleashed in response to the October 7 Hamas massacre in southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed, mostly civilians, and another 253 kidnapped and taken hostage inside Gaza.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing, shows trucks driving past an Egyptian army watchtower on the Egyptian side of the border fence with Israel, during humanitarian aid delivery to the southern Gaza Strip, on January 22, 2024. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Egypt has repeatedly raised the alarm over the possibility that Israel’s offensive could send desperate Gazans into Sinai, while bristling over suggestions from Israel that it would retake full control of the Gaza-Egypt border corridor in order to ensure the Palestinian territory’s demilitarization.

In January, Egypt announced two operations to tackle drug smuggling in northeastern Sinai in an apparent effort to demonstrate its control of the area.

An Israeli official told Reuters that restructuring of security on the border, where he said a small number of tunnels remained, was under regular discussion by the two countries.

Israel would try to organize for the movement of displaced Palestinians northwards within Gaza ahead of any military operation there, the official said.

Palestinians stand by the border fence with Egypt in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 24, 2024. (AFP)

Egyptian security sources have played down any discussions and said they are prioritizing efforts to reach a ceasefire in Gaza. The state information service called accusations of smuggling “lies” intended to give cover to Israel’s objective of occupying the border buffer zone, known as the Philadelphi Corridor.

Egypt has also blamed Israel for limiting deliveries of aid into Gaza, where the risk of famine is growing and aid workers have warned of disease spreading.

Israel has denied holding up or rejecting humanitarian supplies.

Egypt has framed its opposition to the displacement of Palestinians from Gaza as part of wider Arab rejection of any repeat of what Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba”, or “catastrophe”, when some 700,000 fled or were forced from their homes in the war surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.

Diplomats and analysts say Egypt is also concerned about infiltration by Hamas and hosting a large refugee population. In October, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi warned that displacement could turn Sinai into a base for attacks against Israel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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