Israel said to fear Egypt will halt Hamas mediation role, as ties hit new low

Officials say Cairo is using humanitarian situation and blockage at Rafah crossing to build international pressure on Israel to end the war

IDF troops and tanks on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF troops and tanks on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Senior Israeli officials fear Egypt may cease mediating between Jerusalem and the Hamas terror group regarding a Gaza truce and hostage deal, and have warned that the military and intelligence cooperation between the countries will be harmed if the current crisis continues, according to the Haaretz daily newspaper.

The Tuesday report came as Israel and Egypt accuse each other of hindering the flow of aid into Gaza, after Cairo said Sunday it will join South Africa’s “genocide” case against Israel in the International Court of Justice, and after Egyptian sources threatened that a planned offensive in Gaza’s Rafah would endanger the 1979 peace accord between the countries.

Egypt, along with Qatar and the US, has been mediating negotiations between Israel and Hamas during the war, which started on October 7 when the Palestinian terror group led a massive cross-border attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people and abducted 252 people as hostages to Gaza.

Negotiations have focused on putting in place a ceasefire of several weeks that would increase humanitarian aid to Gaza and see the release of hostages, of whom 128 are still in captivity, some believed no longer alive. Israel has insisted that, no matter what, it will continue the war until it achieves its goal of destroying Hamas.

“The current situation vis-a-vis Egypt is the worst it has been since the war began,” one unnamed official was quoted as saying.

Israel recently launched what it has described as a “precise” operation to uproot Hamas from what is considered its last remaining major stronghold, the southern Gaza city of Rafah. However, a major offensive there faces strong international opposition, including from the US, as over a million Gazans are sheltering in the city and its surroundings, having fled there from fighting in other areas of Gaza.

A tank with an Israeli flag on it enters the Gazan side of the Rafah Border Crossing on May 7, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces via AP)

An Israeli official said that while Cairo, in the first months of the war, understood Israel’s goal of toppling Hamas’s rule in Gaza, once the Rafah operation was launched “they have been purposely acting to hinder us and to try and compel us to stop the war.” The official added that this is something that “never happened” even in previous operations in Gaza.

The situation was exacerbated when Israel captured the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing with Egypt, a major conduit for humanitarian aid into the enclave. Egyptian officials found it particularly galling that the Israeli flag was raised at the site, Haaretz reported.

Since then, Egypt has ended coordination for aid trucks to pass from its territory into Gaza, insisting that the other side of the crossing be under Palestinian control.

The hold-up is worsening the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the war.

One of the Israeli officials told Haaretz, “We understand why it caused them [Egypt] a public relations problem,” but added that “their response, almost completely ceasing the transfer of humanitarian aid, is a complete overreaction.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz in Jerusalem, February 19, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz called for Egypt to resume sending humanitarian aid through the Rafah Crossing.

In a statement, Katz said he had discussed the matter yesterday with his British and German counterparts and would also talk about it with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani.

“The world is placing the responsibility for the humanitarian issue on Israel, but the key to preventing a humanitarian crisis is now in the hands of our Egyptian friends,” Katz said. “Hamas will not control the Rafah Crossing. This is a security need we won’t compromise on.”

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry denounced the remarks, saying in a statement that Israel’s seizure of the crossing, as well as its military operations in the area, are the main reasons for aid being unable to enter Gaza.

Israel is said to have looked at giving the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority control over the crossing, but the PA has refused. Such a move would also be expected to face stiff opposition from far-right factions in the Israeli government who reject the idea of giving the PA a foothold in Gaza.

File: Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry attends a panel discussion during the World Economic Forum Special Meeting in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

On Sunday, a senior Egyptian official told The Associated Press that Cairo has lodged protests with Israel, the United States, and European governments, saying the Rafah operation has put its peace treaty with Israel — a cornerstone of regional stability — at high risk.

The official was not authorized to brief the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Despite the tensions, Shoukry played down the possibility that the peace treaty with Israel could be torn up.

“The peace agreement with Israel has been Egypt’s strategic choice for 40 years, and it represents a core pillar of peace in the region for peace and stability,” Shoukry said Sunday at a Cairo press conference with his Slovenian counterpart.

The Wall Street Journal reported in February that Egyptian officials had warned that the decades-long peace treaty with Israel could be suspended if Israel Defense Forces’ troops were to enter Rafah, or if any of Rafah’s refugees were forced southward into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

The most recent round of negotiations saw Israel agree to a proposal that was put to Hamas, but the terror group, while claiming to also agree, responded with altered terms that Israel had not authorized.

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