InterviewSissi has used sea water to flush Hamas tunnels since 2014

Egypt expert warns: Israel cannot afford to take Cairo’s cooperation for granted

Researcher Mira Tzoreff says unlike Qatar, which thrives with Hamas in power, Israel and Egypt share a common goal – ridding Gaza of Hamas

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

File - A handout released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in New York on September 18, 2017. (Photo by HO / AFP)
File - A handout released by the Egyptian Presidency shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in New York on September 18, 2017. (Photo by HO / AFP)

Over the past several weeks of the ground offensive against Hamas, Egypt has repeatedly warned Israel that plans to impose security control over the Philadelphi Route, the 14-kilometer (nine-mile) corridor that runs all along the Egypt-Gaza border, will constitute a “serious threat” to bilateral ties.

The Israeli leadership, however, does not seem to be paying heed to Cairo’s grievances. In a further act of diplomatic insolence, at the genocide hearing in The Hague this month, Jerusalem’s legal team accused Cairo of holding up humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza, prompting Egyptian President el-Sissi to float the possibility of recalling his ambassador to Tel Aviv.

In addition, Israel has alleged that its neighbor allows weapons to be smuggled into Gaza, a claim categorically dismissed by the head of Egyptian State Information Service Diaa Rashwan as “lies.”

Dr. Mira Tzoreff, a senior lecturer at the Department of Middle East and African History and a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, warned against ignoring the widening rift with Israel’s western neighbor and key security partner.

“The peace treaty between Israel and Egypt has withstood nearly four and a half decades of countless regional wars and tensions, but never before has there been talk of it being at risk,” she said in an interview with The Times of Israel.

For over 20 years, Tzoreff has investigated the socio-cultural and political history of Egypt, with a focus on youth, women and minorities. Her research also deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian-Israeli relations.

Suggestions by top Israeli officials to take control of the Philadelphi Route have elicited particularly harsh responses from Cairo, with one Egyptian lawmaker saying that the plan constituted a “violation of the peace treaty” that Egypt signed with Israel in 1979. Egypt was the first Arab country to undertake that step and break a longstanding Arab diplomatic boycott of the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, it was reported on Army Radio on Thursday that the two countries are nearing an agreement to solve the Philadelphi Corridor issue, with Israel potentially exerting a “certain influence” over the route, possibly via unspecified technological means, but without a physical presence along the border.

The fracas, however, has strained ties between the two neighbors at a critical time for the whole region, prompting an unprecedented escalation in rhetoric on the Egyptian side.

“If Israel persists on pushing Egypt into a corner, it will eventually backfire,” Tzoreff warned.

Illustrative: Egyptian soldiers patrol on a road parallel to the Philadelphi Corridor, a buffer zone that separates Egypt from Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip, March 19, 2007. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP)

The Times of Israel: Dr. Tzoreff, how are Israel’s stated intentions vis-a-vis the Philadelphi axis perceived in Egypt?

Dr. Mira Tzoreff: Cairo understands Israel’s worries about securing the Gaza-Sinai border.

In 2005, the two countries signed the “Philadelphi agreement,” which stipulated that Egypt was responsible for securing the 14 km of the axis with 750 soldiers. To meet Israel’s concerns, Egypt offered after the start of the war to beef up that border contingent, but for the Israeli government, it wasn’t enough.

Instead of entering into negotiations with Egypt, Netanyahu has spoken of “occupation” of the corridor, while [Agriculture Minister and former Shin Bet director] Avi Dichter and [Foreign Minister] Israel Katz have spoken of “taking control.”

This terminology is perceived in Egypt as a threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty – which are holy values for Egypt — and as a lack of trust in Cairo’s ability to provide effective security.

Egypt is a society centered around honor, both personal and national, therefore such mistrust comes across as an affront.

In response to Israel’s unilateralism and perceived hubris, Egypt has refused to hand to Israel images taken from its observation posts along the Gaza border – an otherwise normal gesture, were relations not so tense.

Dr. Mira Tzoreff, a senior lecturer at the Department of Middle East and African History and a senior researcher at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University, November 2021 (courtesy)

Let’s not forget that to Egypt’s ears, talk of an “Israeli occupation” has a historic resonance.

The Israeli army conquered Sinai from Egypt in the Six-Day War in 1967. Egypt sought to regain it with the Yom Kippur offensive in 1973, but the peninsula remained under Israeli control. It was eventually returned in 1982, under the terms of the peace treaty concluded by then-Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in 1979.

The defeat of 1967 is still etched in the collective memory of Egypt, it’s a stain on its national honor. President Sadat, in his peace initiative, demanded that Israel to return Sinai up until “the last inch.” In an honor-based society, what he really meant was that Israel had to restore every bit of Egypt’s honor by fully restoring its territorial integrity.

Ever since regaining Sinai, Egypt has taken great care of maintaining it “clean” of any threats – mainly Islamist militias [an ISIS branch has been active in the north of the peninsula since 2014].

By insisting on retaking control of the Philadelphi Route, Israel is showing utter disregard for the 2005 agreement and mistrust in the Egyptian security forces, and that is ringing alarm bells in Cairo.

Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, US president Jimmy Carter, center, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the north lawn of the White House as they sign the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979. (AP/Bob Daugherty)

Why is Egypt so determined to maintain control over the border with Gaza? Is it concerned about a possible spillover of the conflict?

Over the past decade, President Sissi has spilled a great amount of Egyptian army blood trying to “clean up” Sinai from the presence of Islamist militias and restore it as a tourist destination.

It is one of the few achievements he can boast of during his presidency. Under no circumstances will he acquiesce to two million Palestinians from Gaza settling in the Sinai peninsula, as some Israeli top officials have suggested.

Sissi declared that they might endanger the national security of Egypt, as refugees from Gaza would include in their midst Hamas terrorists, who would invariably convert Sinai into a war zone and a launching pad for assaults against Israel, drawing retaliation from the IDF.

In a way, the war between Hamas and Israel has been a boon for Sissi’s image. On one hand, it has allowed him to show Egypt’s humanitarian face, by opening an aid corridor to Gaza and allowing wounded Palestinians to temporarily enter Sinai for medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals.

On the other hand, Sissi has had an opportunity to display his unbridled patriotism – by firmly rejecting Israeli pressures to displace Gazans into Sinai and preserving Egypt’s territorial sovereignty.

Protesters shout anti-Israel slogans during a rally to show solidarity with the people of Gaza after Friday prayers at al-Azhar mosque, the Sunni Muslim world’s premier Islamic institution, in Cairo, Egypt, October 20, 2023. (AP/Amr Nabil)

But the Egyptian economy is in dire straits, unemployment is high, and 60% of the population lives near or below the poverty line, especially young people. Sissi sits on a powder keg, and if he doesn’t deliver results, the stability of his rule will be at risk.

He rules as an autocrat, but he is still dependent on the approval of the Egyptian street, which is closely monitoring his every move in this war.

His regime is a necessary evil, but it is not in the interest of Israel, the US or the Europeans to see him go. We shouldn’t take his cooperation for granted. Instead of antagonizing him, Israel should engage in a negotiation, and listen to what he has to offer and what his red lines are. After all, maintaining security along Gaza’s border is in the mutual interest of both countries.

How does Egypt’s mediation between Israel and Hamas compare to Qatar’s?

Among those two Arab countries, everyone in the international community knows which one is the balanced, considered mediator [Egypt], and which is the problematic one [Qatar].

Qatar is an inescapable partner in these negotiations, but it’s a country with no history and no culture, just money. Never in its history could the tiny Gulf petrostate have dreamed of being in the position it is today, negotiating with the world’s powers, sitting in Paris next to the heads of the CIA, the Mossad and the Egyptian intelligence.

On the other hand, Egypt is a country that has not only a high culture, it has a civilization. It is a mature, solution-oriented interlocutor, it has even put forward a three-stage peace plan to end the conflict – largely ignored by Israel.

Cairo, not Doha, is the real address that all parties turn to when they want to advance talks, including Hamas leaders.

This handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on November 10, 2023, shows Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi (R) receiving Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Presidential Hall at Cairo International Airport. (Photo by Handout / Egyptian Presidency / AFP)

But most importantly for Israel, Qatar’s endgame is to maintain Hamas in power. It acts as an ostensibly neutral mediator, pursuing the release of the hostages, but ultimately it does not align with Israeli interests when it comes to planning Gaza’s future after the war.

On the other hand, Egypt and Israel pursue the same goal: ridding Gaza of Hamas.

The terror movement is reviled by Egypt’s rulers, partly because of its affiliation with the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement, which Sissi considers a threat to his regime, but chiefly because Hamas poses a menace to the stability of Sinai across a restive border.

Sissi had no hesitation in flooding with seawater the tunnels used by Hamas to smuggle weapons into Gaza in 2014, a technique that is now being adopted by the IDF. He was unperturbed by those who called him a “traitor” in the Arab world, and for sure he had no afterthoughts about polluting Gaza’s drinking water.

It is Egypt, not Qatar, that Israel should look to as a mediator in negotiations to end the conflict. We cannot afford to lose it as an ally.

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