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Egypt Threatens To Suspend Key Peace Treaty If Israel Pushes Into Rafah On Its Border, Officials Say

Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Published: February 11, 2024 11:00 PM IST

By Associated Press | Edited by Tahir Qureshi

Egypt, Israel, Rafah, Gaza Strip, Benjamin Netanyahu, Hamas, United States, Qatar, Joe Biden
People block a highway during a protest to demand the release of the hostages taken by Hamas militants into the Gaza Strip during the Oct. 7th attack, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

RAFAH, Gaza Strip: Egypt is threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if Israeli troops are sent into the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah, where it fears fighting could force the closure of the besieged territory’s main aid supply route, two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Sunday.

The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas. He said Hamas still has four battalions there.

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Over half of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and they are packed into sprawling tent camps and U.N.-run shelters near the border. Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.

Netanyahu told “Fox News Sunday” that there’s “plenty of room north of Rafah for them to go to” after Israel’s offensive elsewhere in Gaza, and said Israel would direct evacuees with “flyers, with cellphones and with safe corridors and other things.”

The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, took shape as aid groups warned that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, where around 80% of residents have fled their homes and where the U.N. says a quarter of the population faces starvation.

A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering Gaza’s badly needed food and medical supplies.

Hamas’ Al-Aqsa television station quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would “blow up” talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar aimed at achieving a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Netanyahu were expected to speak later Sunday, according to two administration officials with knowledge of the call who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s private discussions. Biden last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “over the top.”

WHERE WOULD CIVILIANS GO?

All three officials confirmed Egypt’s threats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.

“An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that forced displacement is a war crime and that civilians who don’t evacuate are still protected by international humanitarian law. “There is nowhere safe to go in Gaza,” refugee and migrant rights researcher Nadia Hardman said.

The White House, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire, has also warned against a Rafah ground operation under current circumstances, saying it would be a “disaster” for civilians.

Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, a landmark peace treaty brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. The treaty includes several provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the border.

Egypt has heavily fortified its border with Gaza, carving out a 5-kilometer (3-mile) buffer zone and erecting concrete walls above and below ground. It has denied Israeli allegations that Hamas operates smuggling tunnels beneath the border, saying Egyptian forces have full control on their side.

Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military would be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.

The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to fewer than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more who fled fighting elsewhere, and it is “severely overcrowded.”

Inside Rafah, some displaced people packed up again. Rafat and Fedaa Abu Haloub, who fled Beit Lahia in the north earlier in the war, placed their belongings on the back of a truck. “We don’t know where we can safely take him,” Fedaa said of their baby. “Every month we have to move, and with all the fear and missiles.”

An Israeli ground invasion of Rafah may force Palestinians in Gaza to flee to Egypt, Om Mohammad Al-Ghemry said, and she hoped that Egyptians would “open the borders and let us flee to Sinai.”

112 BODIES TAKEN TO GAZA HOSPITALS IN A DAY

Israel has ordered much of Gaza’s population to flee south, with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory, even as it regularly carries out airstrikes in all areas, including Rafah. Airstrikes on the town in recent days have killed dozens of Palestinians, including women and children.

Israel’s offensive has caused widespread destruction, particularly in northern Gaza, and heavy fighting continues in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis. In Gaza City on Sunday, remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried bodies to graves. Some streets were piled high with sand from bombings.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, as well as 173 wounded people. The fatalities brought the death toll in the strip to 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.

The war began with Hamas’ attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. Over 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some of the remaining hostages have died.

Hamas has said it won’t release any more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. It has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including senior militants serving life sentences.

Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until “total victory” and the return of all the hostages.

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