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Egypt and Israel's ties are being tested by the war in Gaza and border security

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Gaza's southern border with Egypt is crowded with Palestinians who've been pushed there by Israeli evacuation orders and bombardment. Families are living in tents along the cement border wall, and Egypt is worried they could be forced to cross into its territory. NPR's Aya Batrawy has been following this from Dubai and joins us now. Hi there.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Hi, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So just to set the scene, describe this border between Gaza and Egypt. What does it look like, and who is in charge there?

BATRAWY: So the Israelis call this area the Philadelphi Corridor. It's this small strip of land about seven to eight miles long and only around 300 feet wide, but it's very important because it's the only stretch of Gaza that does not border Israel or the sea, which is also controlled by Israel. And Israel relinquished control of this territory when it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. But in a recent press conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Philadelphi Corridor, quote, "must be in our hands." And he said there could be no other arrangement that suits Israel's security needs.

MCCAMMON: OK, but Egypt has said loud and clear that it does not want Israeli troops at that Gaza border or Palestinians pushed into Egypt. What is Egypt's concern here?

BATRAWY: That's right. Egypt says Israeli troops at its Gaza border would violate its peace treaty with Israel and that it fears, of course, that any displacement of Gazans into Egypt could be permanent and could draw Egypt into the war. I spoke with Mirette Mabrouk. She's an expert on Egypt at the Middle East Institute in Washington. She says the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel - they've been modified many times over the years, but these changes weren't made unilaterally. They were done with mutual consent. Let's have a listen.

MIRETTE MABROUK: There is a treaty, and that treaty very clearly says you're going to be on your side, and I'm going to be on my side. We are not going to stray over because that's how wars happen.

BATRAWY: And she says Egypt's leadership has to take into account public opinion on the streets, which is deeply opposed to Israel's war in Gaza that was sparked, of course, by the Hamas attacks on Israel that Israel says killed 1,200 people on October 7. Now, Israel's military response has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to its health ministry. Here's Mabrouk again.

MABROUK: To have your neighbors massacring people on your borders is difficult. To have your neighbors threaten to shove that massacre over onto your borders is untenable.

MCCAMMON: Aya, what is the Israeli government saying about how it sees the Egypt-Gaza border at this point in the war?

BATRAWY: Well, it's not so clear. I mean, the government says its policy is not to push Palestinians out of Gaza, but several far-right ministers of that government say that's exactly what they want. Now, more than a million displaced Palestinians are crammed at that Rafah border. And this week Israel's defense minister said troops will reach Rafah, raising concerns about where those people will go next. Israel says smuggling tunnels under that Philadelphi Corridor from Egypt have been used by militants in Gaza to bring in weapons. And one Israeli news website described this area as a leak in the dam or, in other words, a leak that Israel has to plug.

MCCAMMON: OK, so what's Egypt's response to that concern?

BATRAWY: So Egyptian intelligence officials tell NPR there is a proposal for an Arab Gulf state to finance a deep underground wall between Egypt and Gaza that would block smuggling tunnels, one even deeper than the wall that's already there, but they are adamant there can be no Israeli troops along Egypt's border with Gaza or surveillance activity there. They say that this would be a violation of Egyptian sovereignty. Now, despite these tensions, senior intelligence officials from Egypt and Israel are still talking regularly, and it's that security relationship that has underpinned bilateral ties for more than 40 years. And Egypt is a mediator between Israel and Hamas, and its framework for a truce that it has proposed - maybe even an end to the war and the freeing of Israeli hostages held in Gaza - is being presented to a Hamas delegation this week in Cairo.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Aya Batrawy. Thank you so much for your time.

BATRAWY: Thanks, Sarah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.