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The Philadelphi Route: Does the war on Gaza end here and new wars begin?

The Philadelphi Route: Does the war on Gaza end here and new wars begin?

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Politics History The Truth

Tuesday 9 January 202405:07 pm
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Despite the Philadelphi Route, also known as the Salah al-Din Axis, spanning only 14 kilometers, along the Gaza-Egypt border, its importance exceeds its size, from a security, border, and political standpoint, for Egypt, Gaza, and Israel.

Widespread controversy has ensued after multiple Israeli attempts to occupy the Philadelphi Route, whether through the Egyptian and Israeli sides of the border, or within Israel itself. This raises questions about the importance of the axis to the involved parties and its status in the Camp David Accords. Can Israel control it? Will Egypt or Hamas allow this? Does it constitute the beginning of an Israeli-Egyptian confrontation? Will it be the spark that erupts the current crisis with statements by current and former ministers in Israel? How does the Israeli media regard these statements?

Netanyahu and Lieberman ignite the crisis

On December 28th 2023, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party and former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, known for his extreme right-wing tendencies, took to X to share what he referred to as the day after the war on Gaza. He emphasized the need to occupy southern Lebanon, stating that it must “pay in territory”, as well as to position the Israeli army at the Litani River, and destroy the Philadelphi Route on the Egyptian border. According to him, this would prompt about 1.5 million Gazans to migrate voluntarily to Sinai without being expelled by Israel. He stressed the importance of this proposal after the war because “the situation on the day after the war should not be as it was before, and Hamas must pay the price.”

Momentum and talk about the Philadelphi Route increased following statements by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 30th, 2023. When a journalist asked him about it, Netanyahu said, “The Philadelphi Corridor – or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point [of Gaza] – must be in our hands. It must be shut.”

Amid statements revealing Israeli ambitions to control it, what is the importance of the Philadelphi Corridor for the involved parties, and what is its status in the Camp David Accords? Can Israel seize control of it?

After these statements, Mustapha Bakri, a member of the Egyptian parliament, responded firmly, considering Netanyahu's words a blatant violation of the peace agreement between Tel Aviv and Cairo. Bakri warned Netanyahu against approaching the Egyptian borders, as they are a red line, highlighting the strength and might of the Egyptian army. He called for a decisive response from the Egyptian authorities and to formally protest, adding that Netanyahu's claims will increase pressure on the Gaza Strip and further besiege it, and would also open the way for the forced displacement of Palestinians from their lands.

Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth highlighted Mustapha Bakri's response to Netanyahu's statements and warned that Netanyahu's statements were spreading through Egyptian circles.

Bakri's statements received widespread reaction among the Israeli public in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Many Israelis accused Egypt of being responsible for smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip through the Philadelphi Route, while some warned of the strength of the Egyptian army, and others called for the occupation of the Philadelphi Corridor, considering it outside Egyptian territory.

The Philadelphi Route... How it began

The Philadelphi Route is a narrow border strip built in 1982 in accordance with the provisions of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. It is located within Area D, extending from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Kerem Shalom border crossing in the south. According to the Israeli archives and Hebrew media at the time, the fence caused financial hardship for the residents in the Kenda neighborhood. Their livelihood sources were cut off, and there were many attempts to breach it. The residents were relocated to an area called Tel al-Sultan, and the fence, inaugurated with an electronic system to monitor all movements, was nicknamed ‘Berlin Wall’.

During the First Intifada, the first tunnel under the Philadelphi Route, fifty meters in length, was revealed. At the time, Israeli media claimed that it was used for smuggling goods and people. During the Second Intifada, tensions flared along the axis, and the Palestinian resistance attempted to attack a large number of nearby Israeli sites. The most famous incident was the targeting of an Israeli armored personnel carrier traveling along the axis, where resistance factions killed five soldiers. Israel subsequently launched a wide operation to target the tunnels alongside the axis, destroying 56 homes and three tunnels.

The Philadelphi Route was always a constant concern for the Israeli side until it announced the famous disengagement plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Subsequently, control over the axis was transferred from Israel to Egypt. Shin Bet and Knesset members disagreed and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also opposed the idea, although he ultimately approved following advice from his legal counsel.

On August 28, 2005, the Israeli government approved an agreement to deploy 750 Egyptian border guard soldiers, equipped with heavy weapons (including RPG-7 launchers), 31 ‘Fahd’ armored vehicles, four ‘Timsah’ reconnaissance ships, and three helicopters. The agreement was approved by the Knesset on August 31, 2005, and on September 12 of the same year, Israeli forces evacuated the axis.

After Israel’s withdrawal and the handover of sovereignty to Egypt, Israeli media claimed that weapons smuggling operations increased through the axis via tunnels. According to Israeli Channel 7, operations included smuggling explosives, anti-tank missiles, and long-range missiles. Due to the blockade on Gaza, the movement of people and goods, such as fuel, foodstuffs, washing machines, and refrigerators, increased. In 2007, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, which heightened Israeli concerns about an increase in smuggling operations. The axis remained a concern for the Israeli side, and in 2008, thousands of Gaza residents famously broke through the fence, infiltrating the Egyptian side of the border in search of food and supplies. Israel subsequently announced it would reoccupy the Philadelphi Route in 2009 to prevent the arming of Hamas. In 2012, the Israeli army bombed part of the Routee during its war on Gaza.

Doubting the Israeli narrative

Colonel Gamal Faraj, an expert in security and strategic affairs, tells Raseef22, “Recent Israeli statements will pass in vain after the current war ends, as Netanyahu’s government will discard the ideas it has raised, in fear of public anger in Israel. Occupying the Philadelphi Route is unreasonable from all perspectives. Despite Israel's obsession with provocative statements towards Egypt, the Egyptian leadership will prefer not to be led by statements that can be described as absurd, and the approach to dealing with these issues will be primarily diplomatic, with no recklessness in responding to any provocations. The Egyptian army and leadership will never allow any breach or violation of Egyptian sovereignty.”

He adds, “The Philadelphi Route is a sensitive point for Egyptian national security. In the event of any serious Israeli threats, the Egyptian leadership will establish a new red line that Israel will not be able to cross. The occupation must realize the sensitivity of the timing for such statements, which may expose Egyptian-Israeli relations to more tension, especially in light of more than one precarious position taken by Tel Aviv since the beginning of the war, with attempts to displace Gaza residents and push them towards Sinai, and mentioning Egypt in more than one instance in attempts to pressure Cairo, which rejects such pressures in form and substance.”

“The Philadelphi Route is a sensitive point for Egyptian national security. In the event of serious Israeli threats, Egypt will establish a new red line that Israel cannot cross. Israel must realize such statements its relations with Egypt to more tension”

Hussein Al-Sheikh Amir, Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, believes that “Netanyahu's statements about the necessity of Israel regaining control of the Philadelphi or Salah al-Din Axis [...] is clear evidence of the decision to completely restore the occupation and destroy the agreements established with Egypt.” He calls for a unified Arab stance to confront “Netanyahu's attempts to impose a new reality.”

Egyptian military expert Major General Hesham El-Halaby explains that Netanyahu's statements fall merely within the scope of local consumption, and that he is unable to implement his threats from a legal standpoint, as he attempts to extricate himself from his war on Gaza and is failing to achieve his goals.

Philadelphi from Israeli eyes

It is no secret to observers of Israeli affairs the extent of confusion and floundering between the political and military levels in positions, especially since the beginning of the war on Gaza. The issue of the Philadelphi Corridor was not exempt from this debate and disagreement. Despite Netanyahu's statements, Israeli Minister Yoav Galant announced that there is no intention to occupy the Philadelphi Route, and that the intention is to carry out military operations only to prevent smuggling.

On December 3, 2023, Yedioth Ahronoth revealed that Israel is trying to reach agreements through American mediation to deal with the tunnels along the Sinai Peninsula and the Philadelphi Route, with discussions to build an underground barrier to stop smuggling operations.

“Egypt may have little choice, given that Cairo still greatly values its alliance with the United States.” Ultimately, Washington could exert pressure on Cairo.

Since the beginning of the ongoing war, Israeli media has repeatedly raised the question of the Philadelphi Route. Tensions between Egyptian and Israeli relations have increased due to recent repeated Israeli attacks on the Axis. According to Israeli analyst Lior Ben Ari, Israeli military operations along the axis since October 7, 2023, have left relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv strained; “Egypt was displeased with the lack of coordination, especially as Israel declared that Hamas and the resistance were exploiting the axis for smuggling – a claim denied by the Egyptian side, which affirmed the absence of tunnels in the axis.” According to an Egyptian source quoted in the same article published by Yedioth Ahronoth, “After failing to reach Hamas and resistance leaders, as well as detainees and hostages in the besieged strip, the Israeli side began talking about the Philadelphia Axis and the possibility of using it for those purposes.”

After an extensive study conducted by Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), published in COMMENTARY magazine, it is argued that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi “must decide soon” whether he will be part of the solution or prefer to remain as “part of the problem.” The study highlights the complicated situation regarding Egyptian refusal to displace residents of Gaza and welcome them to Egypt, and assumes that Egypt may face a “difficult situation in the coming period” in regards to the Israeli demand for the Egyptian military to “evacuate from the Gaza-Egyptian border” to avoid the Egyptian forces deployed along the Philadelphia Axis from being “caught in the crossfire as they battle Hamas on Gaza’s southern border” and attempt to “discover tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula” and destroy them. This is “likely going to become a source of friction” and disagreement in the coming days between Egypt and Israel.

According to the study, despite the economic crises facing Egypt, “under the circumstances, it is unlikely that Israeli security concerns will top the list of Egyptian military expenditures,” and its author believes that the possibility of joint action between Egypt and Israel to destroy the tunnels is weak, “given that the anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt has grown” in Egypt. Despite that, Schanzer explains “Egypt may have little choice, given that Cairo still greatly values its alliance with the United States.” Ultimately, Washington could exert pressure on Cairo.

In "The Philadelphia Axis will be the starting point for the next war: Excessive sensitivity towards Egypt poses a danger to Israel", fears are increasing "among high-level Israeli security agencies about Israel's increased sensitivity and fear of offending Egypt"

The beginning of the next war?

Amir Bohbot, a military affairs specialist at Walla news, which is closely connected to Israeli military intelligence circles, discusses the complex situation of the axis and its future implications in an article titled, The Philadelphia Axis will be the starting point for the next war: Excessive sensitivity towards Egypt poses a danger to Israel. In it, Bohbot addresses the “growing concerns among some high-level sources in Israeli security agencies about the increased excessive sensitivity displayed by the Israeli government towards its Egyptian counterpart and its fear of offending Egypt, especially concerning weapons smuggling from Sinai to Egypt. This situation will impact the adoption of a counter-position to confront Hamas.”

Bohbot believes that Egypt has not aided Israel in eliminating the smuggling of weapons to Hamas, despite Israel aiding Egypt in eliminating ISIS in Sinai. He references statements made by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to CBS in 2019, in which he expressed Egypt's satisfaction with the erosion of the Israeli army's capabilities at the hands of Hamas.

Bohbot quotes an Israeli security source as saying, “If the Israeli army fails to confront the danger caused by the tunnels near the Philadelphia Axis, this will be the starting point for the next war. Hamas is exploiting those tunnels to build its military capabilities, smuggling tens of thousands of shells, missiles, explosive devices, bombs, and all kinds of weapons.”

In an article by Nachum Shiloh, a Middle East affairs expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, published in the newspaper Maariv, the situation along the border strip is described as “complex from a political and practical perspective.” Shiloh explains that “occupying the Philadelphi Route or the Palestinian Rafah will increase confrontation between the Egyptian and Israeli armies. It will be a challenge to the peace agreement between the two countries, which stipulates not deploying tanks and artillery shells along the border strip and Area D.”

According to him, “Occupying Rafah and the Philadelphi Route, even temporarily, may create a situation in which Israel violates this part of the peace agreement (Camp David), which may provoke opponents of the peace agreement in Egypt or lead to demands to reinforce the Egyptian forces. Of course, changes can be made to the agreement's provisions in Sinai, but with the approval and consent of both parties.”

Yoni Ben Menachem, anIsraeli writer and analyst, raised a number of questions to Epoch, including whether the uncertainty around Philadelphi Route will lead to an Egyptian-Israeli conflict. He points out that Tel Aviv relies heavily on the American stance and hopes that Washington will exert pressure on Cairo to allow Israel to track the alleged targets near the Philadelphia Axis. He notes that Egypt will find it difficult to reject American pressure, stating, “There is no benefit from this war without Israel gaining full control over the Rafah area and the Philadelphia Axis, stopping the smuggling of large weapons to Hamas from Iran through Egypt. If Israel does not control this area, the war's goals set by the Cabinet will not be achieved.”

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