In the last fortnight, Egypt intensified its military presence in northeastern Sinai, deploying some 40 battle tanks and armored personnel carriers. This move is part of Egypt’s efforts to strengthen security along its border with Gaza.
This military deployment coincides with Israel’s intensification of its military operations around the southern city of Rafah, in Gaza, where a significant part of the Gazan population has taken refuge. This development has increased Egypt’s concern over the possibility that Gazans may try to cross the Egyptian border to flee the Israeli offensive.
The city of Rafah has been the target of intense Israeli airstrikes against the Hamas terrorist group, and is home to more than a million Gazans in anticipation of a large-scale offensive. As the rest of Gaza faces devastation from the fighting, residents of Rafah find themselves with fewer and fewer security options. In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced the military directive to formulate a plan to evacuate Rafah and attack four Hamas battalions stationed there.
Following the start of the war on October 7 with Hamas’ macabre attack on Israel, Egypt undertook major border fortifications, building a concrete wall extending six meters underground, topped with barbed wire. Other security improvements include the creation of berms and improved surveillance at border checkpoints, Egyptian security sources said.
To respond to Israeli concerns about weapons smuggling to Hamas from its territory, Egypt’s state intelligence service revealed the implementation of three levels of barriers designed to thwart any smuggling attempts, whether above or below ground.
The documentation provided by the Sinai Foundation for Human Rights, an autonomous entity, illustrates the wall’s construction in December, complemented by several berms. Later images, captured in early February, show the addition of three layers of coiled barbed wire over the barrier. However, the authenticity of these images has not been independently verified.
Analysis of satellite images from January and December reveals new construction along the approximately 13 kilometers of border near Rafah and the extension of a barrier to the northern end into the sea.
Despite outreach activities, both Egyptian and Israeli authorities have remained silent on the matter.
In recent years, the Egyptian military has strengthened its position in northern Sinai, confronting an Islamist insurgency that emerged a decade ago. Even before the war in Gaza, Egypt reported the demolition of tunnels used for smuggling into Gaza, along with the establishment of a buffer zone along the border. This initiative caused the displacement of thousands of people and the demolition of numerous homes.
On the way to the Rafah border crossing, adjacent to Gaza, the landscape is marked by the remains of demolished homes and extensive concrete barriers erected parallel to the coast and next to the roads near the border. For more than four decades, Egypt and Israel have enjoyed a peaceful relationship, which has deepened in recent years thanks to the export of Israeli natural gas and collaboration on security measures related to their mutual border and the Gaza Strip.
After Hamas took power in 2007, both nations imposed a blockade on Gaza that restricted the movement of people and goods. Israel justifies this blockade as a necessary measure to prevent Hamas from increasing its military capabilities, citing recurring attacks from Gaza as its main concern.
However, the alliance between Egypt and Israel has been tested by the war in Gaza, launched as a retaliatory response to the Hamas massacre in southern Israel on October 7, in which terrorists killed approximately 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapped another 253 and took them to Gaza.
Egypt has expressed concern that the Israeli offensive could prompt Gazans to flee to the Sinai. Furthermore, Egypt has expressed its disapproval of Israel’s suggestions to claim full control of the border corridor between Gaza and Egypt, the Philadelphia Corridor, as a strategy for the demilitarization of the Palestinian territory.
In an attempt to assert its jurisdiction over northeastern Sinai, Egypt unveiled two initiatives aimed at curbing drug smuggling in January. According to an Israeli official, the two nations are holding talks about restructuring border security, which reportedly still includes some tunnels. Israel plans to facilitate the transfer to the north of Gazans displaced within Gaza in anticipation of military actions.
Egyptian security sources have minimized the importance of these talks, giving priority to achieving a ceasefire in Gaza. The state intelligence service has dismissed the smuggling accusations as fabrications intended to justify Israel’s ambition to occupy the Philadelphia corridor.
Egypt has also accused Israel of hindering the delivery of aid to Gaza, where the threat of famine looms, and humanitarian organizations have expressed concern about the spread of disease. Israel denies impeding humanitarian supplies.