Egypt said to form panel to mull moves against Israel

Netanyahu accuses Egypt of holding Gazans ‘hostage’ in Rafah Border Crossing row

PM says he hopes to reach understanding with Cairo over entry point for aid amid deteriorating ties; Egyptian officials: Cairo rejects Israel’s coordination plan to reopen crossing

Egyptian army soldiers man an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) deployed near the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024 (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)
Egyptian army soldiers man an infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) deployed near the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on March 23, 2024 (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday pressed Egypt to reopen the Rafah Border Crossing, suggesting Cairo was holding the people of Gaza “hostage” by not working with Israel on the key aid gateway amid a mounting rift between the two nations.

His remarks come a day after Egypt — the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, and a host of the truce and hostage talks that have apparently broken down — angrily accused Israel of denying responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

In an interview with US financial news network CNBC, Netanyahu said that Israel supported “maximum humanitarian aid flows” through Rafah.

“We want to see it open,” he said, adding: “I hope we can come to understanding” with Egypt.

Netanyahu said the crossing would have been open “yesterday” if it were up to Israel.

“I mean, that’s not our problem. We’re not holding up the opening of Rafah,” he said.

“I hope Egypt considers what I’m saying now,” he said. “Nobody should hold the Palestinian population hostage in any way and I’m not holding them hostage. I don’t think anyone should.”

The Rafah crossing — which borders Egypt and has been the main gateway for goods and people entering and leaving Gaza — has been closed since Israel on May 7 said it had seized it from Hamas.

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.

Egypt has refused to coordinate with Israel on the Rafah Crossing, concerned that the takeover is part of Netanyahu’s push to launch a widespread offensive inside the city of Rafah.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an interview with CNBC, May 15, 2024. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel recently launched what it has described as a pinpoint operation to uproot the terror group Hamas from Rafah, which is considered its last remaining major stronghold.

However, a major offensive there faces strong international opposition, including from the United States, as over a million Gazans are sheltering in the city and its surroundings, having fled there from fighting in other areas of Gaza. Netanyahu said that half a million civilians have evacuated from the southern Gaza city since the start of the military maneuver.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Tuesday that Israeli control of the crossing exposed aid workers and truck drivers to “imminent dangers.”

He said that Israel was “solely responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza, where the United Nations has warned of risks of famine.

Egyptian officials found it particularly galling that the Israeli flag was raised at the site, the Haaretz daily reported on Tuesday.

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)

The United States, Israel’s top ally, has warned against a widespread Rafah offensive and appealed for the reopening of the crossing.

Dan Dieckhaus, a senior official with the US Agency for International Development, said the United States was making its case on the Rafah crossing in talks with regional governments.

“The needs in Gaza are so immense that we cannot afford for any crossings to go offline,” he told reporters.

“We are pressing all parties to come to some sort of arrangement that can more immediately open Rafah and see assistance coming from Egypt.”

Meanwhile, two Egyptian security sources said Thursday that Cairo has rejected an Israeli proposal for the two countries to coordinate to re-open the crossing.

An Israeli delegation visited Cairo on Wednesday in an attempt to ease the growing rift between the two countries over the crossing, Hebrew media reported.

The Israeli proposal included a mechanism for how to manage the crossing after an Israeli withdrawal, the Egyptian security sources said.

According to the Ynet news outlet, the delegation, led by Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories chief Maj. Gen. Ghassan Alian, tried to convince Egypt to renew shipments of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

The delegation, whose roster also comprised senior Shin Bet security officials, returned to Israel on the day it arrived.

Palestinians displaced by the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah, May 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana)

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 likely face stiff opposition from far-right factions in the Israeli government who reject the idea of giving the PA a foothold in Gaza. According to Walla, Israel is still inquiring with the PA whether such a maneuver could occur, but no breakthroughs in the talks have occurred.

Meanwhile, UAE news site The National, citing unnamed sources, reported Thursday that Egypt has formed a panel of international law experts that will look into potential steps Cairo is weighing against Israel, as the country fumes over the IDF’s offensive in Rafah.

According to the report, the panel is to also include constitutional experts and senior intelligence officers.

The report said further details on the panel’s makeup and mandate were unknown, but elaborated that it “reflects the depth of anger Cairo feels over the seizure by Israel on May 7 of the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, as well as its rapidly expanding ground operation in the border city.”

It added that contrary to previous reports, Egypt will not suspend the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

A Palestinian flag hangs outside a shop along a street in the Fleming neighbourhood of Egypt’s northern coastal city of Alexandria on November 24, 2023. (Amir MAKAR / AFP)

Moves being mulled include downgrading the country’s diplomatic representation in Israel, and withdrawing Egypt’s ambassador, the report said.

The report came 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 the Israeli offensive in Gaza’s Rafah could 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 some 1,200 people and saw 252 kidnapped into 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.

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