Egypt’s delicate balancing act as a mediator in the Israel-Hamas war

Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law told the ICJ last week that some 50 cross-border tunnels exist between Gaza and Egypt; reports suggest Egypt torpedoed the recent cease-fire deal

Since October, Egypt, a country that neighbors both Israel and the Gaza Strip, has vied to be among those helping to mediate an end to the hostilities sparked on Oct. 7 when Hamas infiltrated southern Israel.

Yet the most populous Arab state, which signed a peace treaty with Israel more than 40 years ago, seems to be playing a duplicitous game, with reports of dozens of Hamas tunnels snaking beneath its border with the Palestinian enclave, rocket launch sites found only meters from its territory and even officials undermining the cease-fire negotiations to pressure Israel into ending the war, analysts say.

“It’s all a balancing act for Egypt right now,” Joe Truzman, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Jewish Insider.

“Egypt is in a difficult position and is nervous about what may come out of this conflict,” he continued. “On the one hand, it has a sizeable pro-Palestinian population, and does not want to see massive protests on the streets against the inaction of the Egyptian government; on the other, Egypt wants to maintain ties with Israel because it was instrumental in assisting the Egyptians in defeating the Islamic State in the northern Sinai and because Egypt’s relationship with Israel improves its standing with Washington.”

Truzman said the leadership in Cairo may also be worried about “what Israel will find in Rafah,” Gaza’s southernmost town, which runs along the Egypt border and the place where Hamas’ remaining battalions are said to be dug in among more than a million displaced civilians. Israel also believes that some 128 hostages, taken by Hamas terrorists during the Oct. 7 attack, are being held captive there.

“It could potentially be embarrassing for Egypt,” said Truzman. “I believe this is one of the big reasons why it has been so vocal against Israeli operations in the southern city.”

He said that as a mediator in past conflicts between Israel and Hamas, it was possible that Egypt offered some concessions to the Iranian-backed Islamist terror group that has ruled Gaza since 2007 – including the possibility of allowing it to keep or reestablish some of its cross-border tunnels.

In 2013, when current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted then-President Mohammed Morsi, a member and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the new government worked to destroy hundreds of cross-border tunnels built by Hamas. It also created a buffer zone – destroying homes and farms along the border – to combat transnational terror activity between terrorists in Sinai and Gaza.

“It’s possible Egypt missed some of the tunnels then, or that Hamas was able to reestablish its underground network to ferry weapons and possibly fighters,” Truzman observed. “Although it’s also possible that Egypt didn’t destroy all the tunnels because it wanted to gain some political leverage with Hamas.”

“It is also reasonable to assume that Israeli officials were aware that the improved ties between Egypt and Hamas could have led to efforts by Hamas to leverage it and build tunnels,” he added.

Last Friday, responding to a South African petition in the International Court of Justice in The Hague calling for Israel to immediately halt its ground assault in Rafah, Israel’s deputy attorney general for international law, Gilad Noam, described an intricate tunnel system built in Rafah – and estimated that some 50 passageways connected it to Egypt.

He said the subterranean network, which also includes operation centers and bunkers where some of the hostages are likely being kept, allows “Hamas to supply itself with weapons and ammunition.”

“[These tunnels] could potentially be used to smuggle hostages or senior Hamas operatives out of Gaza,” the deputy attorney general told the court. He also noted that “since the start of the present hostilities facilities, more than 1,400 rockets have been fired from Rafah, including more than 120 in the last two weeks.”

While the army has yet to comment formally on the discovery of cross-border tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, there have been reports of Israeli troops discovering rocket launch sites located only meters from the Egyptian border.

Khaled Hassan, an Egyptian-born political risk and intelligence analyst with over 13 years of experience working in the Middle East, told JI that it was unlikely the Egyptian government was aware of the tunnels or that it was “indifferent or complicit” in building them.

“It is important to remember that in December, the Israeli military discovered a large tunnel in Gaza with an entryway just a few hundred meters from its heavily guarded and fortified Erez crossing,” he noted, adding that widely accepted conspiracy theories in the Arab world suggest that Israel and its highly capable intelligence community must have known about that, and other tunnels.

“This is the same argument we hear from Egypt’s critics who are suggesting that Egypt must have known about those tunnels,” Hassan said.

It was more likely, he continued, that the tunnels were built by Bedouin smugglers attempting to move products and individuals in and out of the Strip, a popular scheme since the start of Israel – and Egypt’s – economic blockade of the territory following Hamas’ takeover nearly two decades ago.

“If Israel, with all its advanced intelligence and military capabilities, did not detect tunnels close to its border with Gaza, then it is also likely that Egypt, with its comparatively limited capabilities, would have missed tunnels along its border with Gaza,” Hassan emphasized.

However, a CNN report on Wednesday that an Egyptian intelligence official purposely changed the terms of a recent cease-fire proposal, already approved by Israel, in order to get Hamas to agree to it and further damage Israel’s public image, might complicate the country’s role as a mediator even further.

The news outlet said CIA Director Bill Burns, whom President Joe Biden charged with leading the cease-fire and hostage-release negotiations, “was angry and embarrassed” by sudden changes to the agreed-upon framework for the deal. The report quoted unnamed officials saying that the changes were instigated by a senior Egyptian intelligence official named Ahmed Abdel Khalek.

Hassan explained that Egypt’s opposition to the Rafah operation stems from a combination of regional and domestic issues facing Sisi, but added that prolonging the war was creating an “increasingly dangerous” situation.

“This could be the most critical stage of the war since Oct. 7,” he said. “The CNN report erodes Israeli and American trust in Egypt as a reliable mediator and diminishes the possibility of renewed negotiations.”

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