Egypt said to brace for possibility of refugee influx from Gaza

Though Rafah crossing is still closed, Cairo is reportedly beefing up military presence in Sinai along Gaza border, designating locations to shelter fleeing Palestinians

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

A humanitarian aid convoy for the Gaza Strip is parked in Arish, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Omar Aziz)
A humanitarian aid convoy for the Gaza Strip is parked in Arish, Egypt, Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Omar Aziz)

Egypt has been preparing for the possibility of a massive inflow of refugees from the Gaza Strip through the Rafah crossing, its only land corridor from the coastal Palestinian territory, according to various sources.

While the crossing connecting the Palestinian enclave and the Sinai peninsula in Egypt is still closed, Cairo has been gearing up to ensure that the possible entry of thousands of Palestinians into its territory will not destabilize the border area, battered over the past years by clashes between the Egyptian army and Islamist insurgents.

The measures were taken after Israel ordered on Friday an evacuation of all residents in the north of the Strip – over 1.1 million people – toward the south, where Rafah is located, in anticipation of a major land invasion of the area. So far, at least 600,000 have reportedly evacuated.

Israel declared war on the Hamas terror group after waves of gunmen from Gaza crossed the border on October 7, killing over 1,300 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and abducting an estimated 200 people to Gaza.

After suffering the deadliest attack in its history, Israel unleashed a relentless bombing campaign of the Gaza Strip ahead of the expected ground operation, whose stated the aim is the eradication of Hamas.

For a third day Monday, the Israel Defense Forces announced a safe corridor for people in northern Gaza to move southward between the hours of 8 a.m. and noon.

Palestinians flee to the southern Gaza Strip after the Israeli army issued an evacuation warning to residents of northern Gaza on Friday, Oct. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The Rafah crossing, in the south of the Strip, was still closed on Monday, as Israel denied reports that it had agreed to a ceasefire in the area to allow for its reopening and the entry of humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of foreigners and Palestinians with dual citizenship have been standing in line on the Palestinian side of the crossing waiting to leave the embattled enclave.

While Gazans are not currently seeking to exit the Strip en masse, and while both Egypt and Hamas have called on the civilian population to remain in spite of the Israeli offensive, various sources indicated that Cairo has been bracing to take in some of the 2.3 million residents of the Strip.

Over the past days, the Egyptian defense ministry has reportedly sent convoys of hundreds of border guards and special forces to the Egyptian border city of Rafah, which bears the same name as the Palestinian city across the border in the Gaza strip.

Local Bedouin sources quoted by The New Arab newspaper said that Egypt has been building a sandbag barrier as a reinforcement of the existing wall separating it from Gaza.

Two additional sandbag barriers are being built further away from the border, one at a distance of one kilometer, the other outside the city of Rafah on the way to the next city, Sheikh Zuweid.

Thousands of soldiers as well as tanks and armored personnel carriers have reportedly been deployed along the three lines, with openings in the barrier to allow army forces to move between them.

The purpose of the barriers is to control the movement of Palestinians in case they enter the Sinai, and prevent them from leaving the border region.

In addition, various sources reported that Egypt has placed concrete blocks at the gate of the Rafah crossing in place of the existing iron gate, as an additional obstacle to incoming Palestinians.

FILE – Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip, Saturday, June 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The closure comes at a time when various countries have sent humanitarian aid for Gaza into Egypt through a Sinai airport, which has been held up on the Egyptian side of the border.

In parallel with preemptive physical barriers and army presence, Egypt is making emergency preparations for the possibility of a certain number of refugees coming into the country. The governor of the northern Sinai province, Gen. Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha, directed local authorities to list vacant government buildings, schools, housing units and vacant land that can be used as shelters for Palestinians, The Guardian reported, adding that camps for refugees are being set up at the two border cities of Rafah and Sheikh Zuweid.

Egyptian army presence in Sinai is theoretically limited by the 1978 peace treaty with Israel, which allowed for up to 22,000 troops to be stationed along the Suez Canal. However, in recent years Cairo has been beefing up its forces throughout the peninsula with Israeli agreement to fight an Islamist insurgency in the north, where Islamic State cells are active.

Over the past decade, Egypt has made hundreds of requests to exceed treaty limitations on soldiers and weaponry in Sinai, and Israel approved every one, according to sources quoted by Foreign Policy. Today Egypt has at least double the number of troops originally permitted in the peace treaty.

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