An Israeli military spokesperson on Tuesday offered some advice to Palestinians seeking to flee his country’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip: “Get out” through the “open” border with Egypt.
The problem is that the Rafah crossing in the south of the Palestinian enclave had been closed earlier in the day and is only open to travellers with prior clearance. An Israeli air strike had also caused damage near the crossing.
The office of military spokesperson Lt-Col Richard Hecht later issued a clarification, while the Israel Defense Forces said there had been “no official call by Israel for residents of the Gaza Strip to exit into Egypt”.
But his comments underscored how the conflict ignited by Saturday’s deadly Hamas incursion into Israel — the worst attack on the Jewish state since it was founded — quickly threatens to spill over its borders. In particular, it highlights Cairo’s long-running concern that Israel wants to push its troubles dealing with Hamas-controlled Gaza on to Egypt.
“Israel, as the occupying force, has responsibilities towards Gaza under international law. It cannot give these up” and shift the problem on to Egypt, said Ahmed Kamel al-Beheiry, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “seeking to broaden the crisis and put pressure not just on the Gazans but on neighbouring countries too”, he added.
Netanyahu has advised Gazans to “leave”, and Egypt is the only logical place they can go to, given that they cannot flee into Israel.
US national security advisor Jake Sullivan said on Tuesday that a safe passage plan was “something also that we have been discussing with our counterparts in Israel and with our counterparts in Egypt” but did not offer details.
Egypt has worked with Israel to keep the more than 2mn Gazans packed inside their teeming coastal enclave. Cairo controls Rafah, the main crossing for any Palestinian seeking to exit Gaza. Egypt and Israel co-ordinate extensively over border security and there is trust between their security agencies.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president, said on Tuesday that “national security is my first responsibility and under no circumstances will there be any complacency or negligence”. In a potential reference to talk of resettling Gazans in Egypt, he added: “We will not allow the Palestinian cause to be resolved at the expense of other parties.”
Cairo is also acutely aware of the sympathy that many of Egypt’s 100mn people have towards the Palestinian desire for statehood. On Sunday, a day after the mass Hamas incursion in which at least 900 Israelis were killed, an Egyptian policeman killed two Israeli tourists in the city of Alexandria.
The first Arab state to normalise relations with Israel in 1980, Egypt has since played an important mediation role in wars between Israel and Hamas by working to secure ceasefires.
Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said it was unclear when negotiations would start.
“The Israelis haven’t moved into Gaza yet, and the ground offensive has not started,” Hanna said, referring to a possible Israeli invasion of Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 assault.
“Egypt will eventually play this [mediation] role in some form or fashion, but this conflict is unprecedented and we shouldn’t assume it will follow pre-existing scripts.”
Egypt’s intermediary role has helped shore up its international standing, according to analysts. Surrounded by conflict and failed states in Libya and Sudan, Egypt’s record in securing truces has helped mute western criticism over its human rights record.
The complicating factor is that more than 100 Israeli hostages are in the hands of Hamas and its allies. The militant group has threatened to execute a hostage every time Israel bombs a residential area without advance warning.
“We don’t have a reference point for that” from previous wars, said Hanna. “Pressure from within Israel on Netanyahu to negotiate might impact when the mediation starts.”
Tens of thousands of Palestinians have fled their homes in Gaza, where electricity is intermittent and access to food restricted. Health officials in the Mediterranean territory said 765 Palestinians had been killed in the past four days.
Cairo is making preparations to receive the wounded and send humanitarian aid to Gaza when possible. At the same time, Israeli television reported that Israel had warned Egypt it would bomb any aid trucks sent to relieve the pressure on Gaza, which on Tuesday endured another day of Israeli shelling.
The confused statement from Hecht was far from the first time an Israeli had suggested Palestinians go to Egypt. Rightwing politicians and commentators within Israel had periodically argued that Gazans could be resettled in the Sinai peninsula.
Egypt’s state-controlled Al Qahera News channel said on social media on Monday that senior Egyptian sources had told it that “Egyptian sovereignty” was not to be breached and that the “occupying authorities are responsible for creating humanitarian corridors to save the people of Gaza”.
Senior Egyptian TV presenter Lamis al-Hadidy this week said taking in Gazans would “empty the Palestinian cause of meaning” and “only serve the interests of the occupation”.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington