Defense Minister Yoav Gallant flies above the skies of Gaza with the Israeli Air Force, January 21, 2024 (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Now is the time for the administration to forge an arrangement between Israel and Egypt to prevent the re-emergence of Hamas by dealing with the Philadelphi Corridor and the Rafah checkpoint.

Two months after the war with Hamas began, I was interviewed about the “Day After” along with a foreign policy expert from the Gulf and a Palestinian-American think tank analyst. I brought up the importance of Israeli control of the Philadelphi Corridor, the 8.9-mile-long southern border between Gaza and Egypt, as an essential part of the endgame for determining whether Israel would be victorious after the war, which surprised them. Today, that is conventional wisdom.

Unless Israel controls that border, both the overland checkpoint through the city of Rafah, as well as access to inspect for tunnels everywhere along the border, Hamas will rearm and create an insurgency that will rear its ugly head throughout Gaza, threatening not only Israel’s soldiers but the resurrected communities Hamas massacred on October 7. Palestinian civilians, either out of fear of Hamas or animosity toward Israel, are unlikely to expose the terrorists in their midst to civilian authorities. 

Yet, according to Yonah Jeremy Bob, writing in The Jerusalem Post, “Despite reports that the military has an updated operational plan for entering Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, or for at least securing the Egypt/Gaza border, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, there is, at the current time, no immediate decision to move forward.” 

The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz concurs, saying, “Israel’s political leadership steadfastly refuses to provide its military commanders with the strategic vision to enable it to tackle the challenge at the foot of the Gaza Strip – in Rafah and all along… the Philadelphi Corridor.” IDF Chief Herzi Halevi reportedly warned that the gains made in more than three months of fighting risk erosion, “because no strategy has been put together for the day after.”

Israel’s safety in the hands of others

Israel cannot trust an international force like the UN to ensure its security and prevent a resurgent arms flow. Just look at the 150,000 missiles transferred to Hezbollah since the UN passed UNSC 1701 in 2006, which demanded that the terror group withdraw 20 miles from the Israeli-Lebanese border, while the UNIFIL force, unsurprisingly, did nothing. 

SO, THE choice for Israel’s political leadership is to make the necessary choice to control the southern Gazan border with Egypt or hope the Egyptians will take control as they promised in the past. Is there a choice? As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, the border must be “in our hands… Clearly, any other arrangement won’t guarantee the disarmament we want.”

But to do that requires many more months of fighting in Rafah and Khan Younis than President Biden is likely to countenance in a US election year. As Bob says, figuring “out how to act without killing Palestinian civilians within the most crowded Gaza situation it has yet confronted, with few evacuation options, and deciding what it will do if and when it finds any of Hamas’s leadership surrounded by hostages – this is the trap that Hamas has set for the IDF.”

Any option would be difficult if the Egyptians chose not to help. According to the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, Diaa Rashwan, head of the Egyptian State Information Service, said Israel’s “occupation” of the Philadelphi Corridor would breach the Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty of 1979. It also said accusations that Egypt enables or allows weapons smuggling to Gaza are “nonsense.” The Israeli-Egyptian treaty, a cold but effective truce that has been held in place for decades, is something Israel cannot risk undermining. 

For America’s interests in a long-term stable situation for Gaza, it must increase its mediation efforts now, not when the hostilities die down, when it may be too late to persuade Egypt. A carrot in the form of additional aid and a stick in the form of threatening to withhold the $1.5 billion in annual military assistance need to be carefully balanced. If done correctly, this could achieve a result that allows Israel freedom to prevent the resurrection of arms shipments and allows Egypt not to incur the wrath of its civilians, who, in the last free election in 2012, overwhelmingly voted for either the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists. 

Although Egypt is publicly against cooperation with Israel, in reality, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi does not want a revitalized Hamas, the child of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s archenemy. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, Israel and Egypt are talking. Israel wants sensors installed along the Philadelphi Corridor, receiving direct notification with the ability to send surveillance drones, which Egypt says is a violation of their sovereignty. To ask Israel to rely on the Egyptians and an electronic surveillance system alone to monitor the border is mind-boggling, given the catastrophic failure of relying on state-of-the-art sensors on October 7th. 

HAMAS WEAPONS smuggling from Egypt is nothing new. Back in 2009, after Operation Cast Lead, the first Gaza war, Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute wrote, “Given Hamas’s ongoing weapons smuggling into Gaza, Israel’s mid-January unilateral ceasefire may be short-lived. Although the United States and Israel reached an agreement… to counter the smuggling, Egypt and Israel have yet to forge a similar understanding. The persistence of Hamas’s arms smuggling almost ensures an eventual resumption of hostilities in Gaza.” 

As Yogi Berri said, it is like déjà vu all over again.

Egypt was supposed to control the border but has not done that. In an off-the-record conversation with an Israeli intelligence expert, I learned that the supposed Egyptian flooding of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt was never completed out of fear that the Gazan aquifers that supply Gazans with 90% of their water could be contaminated by seawater. 

Egyptian soldiers guarding the border have looked the other way or are being bribed, as they undermine Egypt’s promise to close the border as dictated by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian agreement. This is why, in part, it turns out that there were hundreds of miles of underground tunnels housing an enormous armory. Add to that the Qatari money that allowed Hamas to pay for its arms and tunnels. 

Now is the time for the administration to forge an arrangement between Israel and Egypt to prevent the re-emergence of Hamas by dealing with the Philadelphi Corridor and the Rafah checkpoint. Many within the president’s party don’t want to reward Egypt because of human rights issues. None of Israel’s neighbors get high marks for human rights, which doesn’t look likely to change very soon; the Arab Spring cooled off to winter without passing through summer. But Israelis have to go to sleep at night with security measures based on reality, not on fantasies.

The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) and Mandel Strategies. He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for The Jerusalem Report.

By mepin