Egypt reportedly building walled enclosure in case masses of Gazans flee to Sinai

Egyptian officials tell WSJ that enclosed site could house over 100,000 people, as Cairo makes contingency plans ahead of expected Israeli operation in Gaza’s southernmost city

Video published by the New York Times on February 15, 2024, shows Egyptian construction vehicles working on a new wall, south of Gaza's Rafah. (New York Times video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Video published by the New York Times on February 15, 2024, shows Egyptian construction vehicles working on a new wall, south of Gaza's Rafah. (New York Times video screenshot: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Egypt is constructing a wall in the Sinai Desert near Gaza, according to reports Thursday, amid concerns that an Israeli operation in Rafah could lead to masses of Palestinians attempting to take shelter in Egyptian territory.

Egyptian officials and security analysts told the Wall Street Journal that as part of contingency plans, work is underway on a 20 square kilometer walled enclosure near the Gaza Strip that could house over 100,000 people.

The Egyptian officials said, however, that Egypt would try to limit the number of Palestinians in the walled area to 50,000 to 60,000 if large numbers of refugees flee the Strip.

The officials added that Palestinians would be barred from leaving the area — which is not close to any Egyptian towns — unless leaving for another country, and that travel restrictions in northern Sinai would be tightened.

The local governor denied a refugee camp was being constructed, asserting to the Journal that the work was part of a damage assessment from past Egyptian military operations against Islamic State jihadists in Sinai.

A New York Times report on the new wall included a short video clip showing several construction vehicles south of Rafah, along with a satellite photo of work on the project.

Satellite images analyzed by The Associated Press also showed construction on a wall near the border.

Cairo officials did not respond to requests for comment Friday from the AP. The satellite images, taken Thursday by Maxar Technologies, show construction ongoing on the wall, which sits along the Sheikh Zuweid-Rafah Road some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) west of the border with Gaza.

This handout satellite picture taken and released by Maxar Technologies on February 15, 2024 shows machinery building a wall along the Egypt-Gaza Strip border in Rafah, Egypt. (Handout / Satellite image ©2024 Maxar Technologies / AFP)

The images show cranes, trucks and what appear to be precast concrete barriers being set up along the road.

Reuters cited an unidentified source as saying Egypt was optimistic talks to clinch a ceasefire can avoid any scenario of mass Palestinian migration into Egypt, but is establishing the area at the border as a temporary and precautionary measure.

The source said construction of the camp began three or four days ago and it would offer temporary shelter in any scenario of people crossing the frontier “until a resolution is reached.”

The reports came ahead of an expected Israeli operation in Rafah, which sits on the Gaza-Egypt border and is the last major Hamas stronghold in the Strip. The US and regional allies have warned of the humanitarian dangers of the Israel Defense Forces moving into the city, in which more than 1 million Gazan refugees are sheltering.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to provide “safe passage” for civilians out of Rafah without specifying where the large number of people massed near the border with Egypt would go.

In an effort to forestall a massive influx of refugees, Egypt has, over the past two weeks, stationed some 40 tanks near its border with Gaza, after reinforcing the border wall since the beginning of hostilities, both structurally and with surveillance equipment, according to Reuters.

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

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported on Israeli plans to evacuate Palestinians from Rafah to a series of tent cities across Gaza, which it said have been shared with Egypt.

An official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel that there are several plans under discussion, none of which have been approved yet.

The Journal also recently reported that Egyptian officials have warned that the decades-long peace treaty between Egypt and Israel could be suspended if IDF troops enter Rafah, or if any of Rafah’s refugees are forced southward into the Sinai Peninsula. However, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed this week that Cairo is committed to upholding its peace treaty with Israel.

“We will continue our efforts with both parties to reach an agreement that leads to the release of hostages and prisoners and ensuring the entry of aid into the Gaza Strip,” Shoukry said Monday, referencing ongoing efforts, along with Qatar and the US, to forge a truce deal between Israel and Hamas.

Egypt has reportedly warned Hamas that it must reach a hostage-for-ceasefire deal with Israel within two weeks, or Israel would move into Rafah.

Shoukry also slammed Israel’s conduct in the war and reiterated Egypt’s opposition to the potential displacement of Palestinians into the Sinai peninsula in the event of an operation in Rafah. He added that the only solution to the conflict was a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, center, speaks with his Cypriot counterpart Constantinos Kombos, during their meeting at the foreign house in Nicosia, Cyprus, on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024. (AP/Petros Karadjias)

On Sunday evening, Hebrew media outlets reported that IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi told the cabinet that he had already approved an operation in Rafah three times and that the military was prepared to carry it out whenever it received the green light from the government.

Channel 12 also reported, without citing sources, that the IDF would prefer that Gazan civilians currently sheltering in Rafah only be allowed to move to the north of the Strip as part of a hostage release deal. If not, according to the report, the military has other ways to operate in Rafah, though none were specified.

War erupted in Gaza with Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw thousands of terrorists burst across the border by air, land and sea, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping 253 to Gaza, mostly civilians. In response, Israel launched an extensive military campaign aimed at eliminating the terrorist organization and returning the hostages, two of whom were rescued in a military operation in Rafah early Monday.

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