Benjamin Netanyahu sets his sights on control of the border between Egypt and Gaza

Israel wants to regain the Philadelphi Corridor that separates Sinai from the enclave, but a change in the status quo carries significant military and humanitarian implications

Guerra entre Israel y Gaza
Palestinians displaced by Israeli attacks take shelter near the border with Egypt at Rafah, January 7.IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)
Marc Español

As Israel’s military and humanitarian pressure in southern Gaza intensifies and discussions about the future of the Gaza Strip continue, the narrow corridor along the border between the Palestinian enclave and Egypt is assuming greater importance. Israeli authorities claim that Hamas brings in weapons and people through this demilitarized crossing, codenamed the Philadelphi Corridor by Israel, and in recent weeks has openly expressed its aim to exert greater control over it. However, the corridor’s status is regulated by the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, and its management has important implications for the security architecture of the area, the Gaza blockade, and Egypt’s relevance to the Palestinian issue.

In recent weeks, the future of this strategic access corridor into Gaza has once again come under the spotlight as the focus of rumors and leaks to Israeli and Arab media. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Saturday his intention to close the axis. “The Philadelphi Corridor — or to put it more correctly, the southern closing point [of Gaza] — must be in our hands. It must be shut,” he said in December, as quoted by Reuters. “It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarization that we seek.”

One of the main provisions of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty was the end of Israel’s occupation of the Sinai, which the Jewish state had captured along with Gaza during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The agreement divided the peninsula into four security zones, with varying degrees of military deployment permitted for both sides. Three of these are in Egyptian territory and one in Israel and Gaza. In 2005, as part of the plan to withdraw the Israeli army and settlers from the Gaza Strip, the two countries signed an arrangement whereby an Egyptian Border Guard force would be deployed on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza to deal exclusively with smuggling, infiltration, and terrorism issues, while Israel would withdraw from the Philadelphi Corridor.

Smoke over the city of Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, after an Israeli attack on Tuesday.
Smoke billowing over Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, during an Israeli bombardment on January 16, 2024.- (AFP)

Any amendment to this arrangement requires the agreement of both parties, which has happened on three occasions: in 2007, when Hamas took control of Gaza, and in 2018 and 2021, as part of the Egyptian counter-terrorism campaign in the Sinai. Israel has also raised the issue of reoccupying the Philadelphi Corridor during previous military campaigns in the Gaza Strip, despite the fact that Sinai and Gaza are separated by two walls and, a decade ago, Egypt created a five-kilometer-deep buffer zone along the Palestinian enclave, on the only one of its borders that Israel does not control.

“The only explanation for such claims is that, perhaps, Hamas is using tunnels to enter Sinai and hide, and that, possibly, weapons are still coming in. But there is no proof and this defies the last 10 years of Egyptian heavy-handedness in the border area, which is now completely militarized. Nothing is coming in. It is completely guarded and controlled,” notes Mohannad Sabry, an Egyptian Sinai security expert.

Abu Obaida, spokesman for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ armed wing, said during a speech on Qatari channel Al Jazeera on the 100th day of the Israeli offensive in Gaza that the weapons they use are manufactured by the brigades themselves. Along these lines, the director of the Egyptian State Information Service, Diaa Rashwan, who in recent months has been acting almost as an official spokesman, recently described the accusation that Cairo allows or facilitates the smuggling of weapons to Palestinian resistance factions as “nonsense.”

Displaced Palestinians shelter near the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.
Displaced Palestinians shelter near the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA (REUTERS)

Sensors to monitor tunnels

In early January, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing senior Egyptian officials, that Israel had asked Egypt to install sensors along the corridor to monitor Hamas attempts to rebuild a network of smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, as well as the right to send surveillance drones into the area if such activity is detected, something Cairo reportedly rejected. For now, Egypt has refused to discuss increased Israeli monitoring and is prioritizing negotiations to secure a ceasefire, Reuters reported citing Egyptian sources.

Egyptian media close to the intelligence services have also denied that there is any cooperation with Israel over the corridor, while Rashwan has warned that its occupation would violate the peace treaty with Egypt and that Cairo will defend its security if the Israeli army tries to take it back. At the same time, official media have stated that the corridor is in Palestinian territory and as such a possible Israeli occupation would not constitute an invasion of Egyptian sovereignty, which represents a thornier issue.

“The idea of reoccupying the Philadelphi Corridor is entirely political,” Sabry says. “Over the last 20 years or so, Israel has had no idea how to assess Hamas’ evolving and increasing military capabilities, and that’s why we hear these statements [about the corridor’s future] from ministers and political officials, not from military officers and commanders. If there was any military merit to it, we would have seen a lot more talk about it in Israeli military and security circles.”

The Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an Egyptian organization, has claimed that in recent weeks Egyptian authorities have dismantled watchtowers adjacent to the corridor and rebuilt them further west, inside Egyptian territory. The organization, which has also published images and videos from the area, claims that the border fence separating Egypt from Gaza has also been reinforced with a concrete wall and earth mounds.

The Philadelphi Corridor is also key to humanitarian operations as the Rafah crossing stands in the middle of the axis, through which it was possible to break the total siege on Gaza imposed by Israel at the beginning of the war. Humanitarian aid has continued to flow, albeit in dribs and drabs due to the obstacles put in place by Israel, which has bombed the Palestinian side of the border area on several occasions.

Today, the Rafah crossing, in southern Gaza on the border with Egypt, is the main refuge for displaced Palestinians fleeing the Israeli army’s offensive in Gaza and its relocation orders. It currently hosts more than one million people, crammed into a space that the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs describes as “extremely overcrowded.” In recent days, the Sinai Foundation has released videos and photos showing tents a few meters from the Philadelphi Corridor, raising fears of a possible mass expulsion of Gazans as part of an alleged ethnic cleansing of the enclave.

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