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Egypt on edge as Israel’s war presses more than a million Palestinians up against its border

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Egypt is boosting its security presence at its border with the Gaza Strip, wary of a spillover of Israel’s war on Hamas onto its territory should the Israeli military begin its ground assault on the enclave’s southernmost city, Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population is sheltering just steps away from the frontier.

The fortification by the border with Gaza is a “precautionary” measure ahead of an expected Israeli ground operation in Rafah, Egyptian security officials told CNN. As part of its security buildup, the officials said, Egypt has deployed more troops and machinery in North Sinai, bordering Gaza.

Israel’s military campaign in Gaza may be putting its almost half-a-century-old ties with a key Arab partner at risk. Egypt has already condemned Israel’s move to push Palestinians southward in the enclave, suggesting it is part of a plan to expel Gazans and that it would spell the end of the Palestinian cause. Now, it is sounding alarms again as Israel pushes more than a million Palestinians toward its territory and prepares for a military operation in Rafah.

Egypt also appears to be building a massive, miles-wide buffer zone and wall along its border with southern Gaza, new satellite images show. The images, taken this week by Maxar Technologies, show a significant section of Egypt’s territory between a roadway and the Gaza border has been bulldozed. At the actual border, multiple cranes can be seen laying sections of the wall.

Additional satellite imagery reviewed by CNN shows that bulldozers arrived on site on February 3, and the initial excavation of the buffer zone began on February 6. There has been a significant uptick in excavation this week.

CNN has reached out to the Egyptian government for comment on the buffer zone and wall construction.

Checkpoints leading to the Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian side have been boosted with more soldiers and the areas around the main road were being prepared for the deployment of tanks and military machinery, an eyewitness told CNN.

Egyptian military helicopters were also seen flying on the Egyptian side this week, according to an eyewitness in Egypt and social media videos shot from the Gaza side of the border.

Egyptian army soldiers look on from behind the barbed-wire border fence as Palestinian workers unload crates of humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu Salem) border crossing in the southern part of the enclave on January 29. - Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian army soldiers look on from behind the barbed-wire border fence as Palestinian workers unload crates of humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom (Karm Abu Salem) border crossing in the southern part of the enclave on January 29. - Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

Officials in Egypt and Israel rarely criticize one another in public, but Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesperson on Monday lambasted comments by far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who said Cairo bears considerable responsibility for the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, which killed 1,200 people and led to the abduction of more than 250 people. Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza has led to the death of more than 28,000 there, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

It is “unfortunate and disgraceful” that Smotrich “continues to make irresponsible and inflammatory statements, which only reveal a hunger for killing and destruction,” the Egyptian spokesperson said on X, formerly Twitter.

Egypt was the first Arab nation to recognize Israel in 1979. The two signed a landmark pact that saw Israel return the Sinai Peninsula it captured from Egypt in the 1967 war in exchange for peace. The treaty also limited the number of troops stationed on the border between Egypt and Gaza, which at the time was controlled by Israel. The treaty turned Egypt into a pariah in the Arab world but decades later helped pave the way for other Arab nations to sign similar agreements with Israel.

Western media outlets, including the Associated Press and The New York Times, have reported that Egypt has threatened to void the peace treaty if Israeli troops invaded Rafah. Egypt’s foreign minister dismissed those reports, but said in a news conference Monday that Cairo would adhere to the treaty “as long as it remains reciprocal,” the state-run Ahram newspaper reported.

A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Rafah, Gaza, on February 3. - Maxar Technologies
A satellite image from Maxar Technologies shows Rafah, Gaza, on February 3. - Maxar Technologies

An Israeli official acknowledged that the Egyptians have been concerned with Israel’s operation, but said they are not aware of a specific threat with regard to the treaty. “There is a collaboration between Israeli and Egyptian security forces. Always has been and always will be,” the Israeli official told CNN.

Emad Gad, an advisor at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a former member of Egypt’s parliament, said that Egypt suspending the treaty is “totally unrealistic.”

The move, he told CNN, would have consequences with the United States, including on the significant financial and military aid Egypt receives from Washington.

“The present crisis presents potential dangers not seen in previous incidents,” said Ofir Winter, senior researcher at Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv and lecturer at the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

While Egypt and Israel have had rough patches since the treaty was signed, Winter told CNN, this is the worst period in Israeli-Egyptian ties since decade-long ruler Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power.

Israel has been under pressure from the international community to refrain from launching a ground operation in Rafah, which has for weeks been under Israeli aerial bombardment. The city is the last major refuge for Palestinians fleeing the north and center of Gaza.

Palestinians crowd the streets of Rafah, southern Gaza on February 10. - Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty Images
Palestinians crowd the streets of Rafah, southern Gaza on February 10. - Abed Zagout/Anadolu/Getty Images

After numerous Israeli calls to evacuate other areas of the strip, more than 1.3 million people are now crammed into a sprawling tent city in Rafah.

Families struggling with shortages of food, water and medicine are living in tents just meters from the barbed-wire fence separating them from Egypt.

Several Israeli cabinet ministers, including far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Smotrich, have publicly called for the resettlement of Gaza by Jews after the war. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected the idea of reestablishing settlements in Gaza, he has said that Israel will keep “full security control.”

Refugee spillover

The Egyptian foreign ministry warned Sunday of the “grave consequences” of an Israeli military operation in Rafah, calling on Israel to refrain from “taking measures that would further complicate the situation and would harm the interests of everyone involved without exception.”

For Egypt, the prospect of millions of Palestinians pouring into the country brings memories of the 2008 border crisis, when hundreds of Gazans stormed into Egypt after the border wall was blown out and torn down. The Palestinians had been running out of fuel, food and other supplies after Israel closed Gaza’s border crossings.

Egypt has said that since the war began, the Rafah crossing was bombed at least four times on the Palestinian side. In October, Egypt blocked the gates of the crossing with concrete slabs.

Egypt’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Wednesday said that “targeting this area of the strip, which is filled with so many civilians, poses a danger.”

“This is very different than if these citizens were living in a larger or more spacious area,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid said in an interview with Alghad TV. “We are taking about an area in southern Gaza that used to be inhabited by 300,000 Palestinians,” Abu Zeid said, adding that over a million people live there now.

Children stand next to tents as displaced Palestinians, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, shelter in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 26. - Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Children stand next to tents as displaced Palestinians, who fled their houses due to Israeli strikes, shelter in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 26. - Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Crossing a demilitarized buffer zone

The Egyptian official was keen to spell out the dangers of Israel’s ground offensive crossing the Philadelphi Corridor – the14-kilometer (about 8.7 mile) long and 100-meter-wide strip of land on the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The narrow line is a buffer zone on the Egypt-Gaza border, set in place as part of the 1979 peace treaty. It is part of a larger set of areas that Israel and Egypt agreed to demilitarize. Neither state can increase its military presence there without prior agreement of the other.

After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, it agreed with Egypt on a mechanism to secure the area with only Egyptian border patrol forces on the Egyptian side of the border. Experts say Egypt’s recent deployments there could be a violation of that agreement – unless it was done with Israel’s tacit approval.

In boosting its security presence at the border with Gaza, Egypt says it’s acting under the terms of a 2016 agreement with Israel to increase forces in so-called Area C in Sinai, adjacent to the Israeli border, another Egyptian official told CNN. That 2016 agreement came at a time when Egypt was fighting an extremist insurgency.

The security buildup on the Egyptian side is technically not in line with both countries’ security agreements, but it is likely taking place with Israel’s blessing, Gad said.

“It seems that this is a step approved by Israel as a way to calm Egyptian fears,” Gad said. “Egypt would not deploy (more forces) without Israel’s approval.”

Gad said an Israeli ground campaign in Rafah itself wouldn’t constitute a breach of the treaty, but an operation in the Philadelphi Corridor would.

Deployment of Israeli troops in the Philadelphi Corridor without prior agreement between both countries would be a breach of the peace treaty, the Egyptian official told CNN, adding that the government had not approved such a deployment. Winter said that if Israel undertakes military operations in Rafah involving more than the four infantry battalions as allowed under the agreement, Egypt may assert a breach of the agreement.

It is unclear if Israel and Egypt are speaking about the potential operation in Rafah. While Israeli media has previously reported some level of coordination, Egypt’s government-linked Al Qahera News said last month that Egypt had denied reports alleging any security coordination between Israel and Egypt on the Philadelphi Corridor.

Gad of the Al-Ahram Center said that there are “undoubtedly and absolutely security talks” between Israel and Egypt, adding that whenever there have been political tensions, the security apparatuses have intervened to calm things down.

Such talks, he said, are often denied by officials to appease public opinion.

While relations between Israel and Egypt have not been this heated in years, they are mainly focused on “the level of official statements,” he said.  “On the practical level, on the security and military level, ties are stable.”

CNN’s Lauren Izso and Paul P. Murphy contributed to this report.

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