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Egyptian casualty along Gaza border puts strain on the landmark Israel-Egypt peace accord

Trucks loaded with supplies are lined up on a dirt road next to a barricade
Egyptian trucks carrying humanitarian aid bound for the Gaza Strip queue outside the Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian side March 23.
(Khaled Desouki / AFP/Getty Images)
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It was another close call. When a clash between Egyptian and Israeli soldiers near Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip left one Egyptian dead, it raised the specter — yet again — of a spark that would set off a conflagration across the Middle East.

Both countries moved swiftly to contain the fallout, a sign of the durability of their decades-long diplomatic ties. Egypt’s military spokesman talked about a “shooting incident” but did not mention Israel, while the Israeli military said “dialog was taking place with the Egyptian side.”

But Monday’s skirmish was the latest in a string of events underscoring the region’s volatility since Oct. 7, and the risk that the Israel-Hamas war will rattle long-standing peace agreements — nurtured by Washington for decades — between Israel and its neighbors.

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Relations between Egypt and Israel have been strained for months, with Cairo intent on stopping any Israeli effort to drive Gaza residents onto Egyptian territory.

Tensions only worsened after Israel pushed into the south Gazan city of Rafah this month — where an estimated 1.4 million of Gaza’s residents had taken refuge — and seized the Palestinian side of the crossing and the Philadelphi Corridor, an almost 9-mile-long and 300-foot-wide path along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

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In response, Egypt shut down humanitarian deliveries via Rafah, insisting administration of the crossing return to Palestinian control and that Israel was violating decades-old security arrangements that limited the number of soldiers and equipment on either side of the border.

But Monday’s shooting, the first deadly clash between Egyptian and Israeli forces since the war began, illustrates the risks of spillover in the fighting as Israel presses its offensive into Rafah and operates in close proximity to Egyptian units, not to mention Egyptian civilians living close to the border.

“This will happen again,” said Samir Ragheb, an Egyptian analyst and chairman of the Cairo-based Arab Foundation for Development and Strategic Studies.

“Committees [are] investigating the incident and [there’s] dialogue between the two sides,” he said. “All that’s fine. But there’s no guarantee for what comes later. ... This is dealing with the symptom not the disease: which is that Israel is in Rafah and on the border where it shouldn’t be.”

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Israel says the crossing and the corridor must remain in its hands if it is to choke off arms supplies to Hamas through the Sinai, whether through the crossing or the cross-border tunnel network Hamas operates.

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On Tuesday, in response to questions about tanks appearing on the streets of Rafah for the first time in the war, Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said troops had “detected tunnels running along the Philadelphi Corridor ... going to Sinai.”

Egyptian officials have repeatedly dismissed Israeli accusations of allowing smuggling as “groundless,” adding that it has destroyed thousands of tunnels, created a buffer zone and built a barrier to prevent weapons transfers.

Details of exactly how the clash occurred remain murky. Initial Israeli reports said the Egyptian side was the first to open fire, while Egyptian state-affiliated Al Qahera News said preliminary investigations indicated a skirmish had started between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, with shots fired in multiple directions. That led an Egyptian security team member to take protective measures and “deal with the source of fire,” the news agency said.

“This is what Egypt has warned against for months,” an unnamed Egyptian security official told Al Qahera on Monday. “The Israeli attack on the Philadelphi Corridor creates field and psychological conditions that are difficult to control and liable to escalate.”

The killing of the soldier has ratcheted up anti-Israel sentiment in a country that has never managed more than a so-called cold peace with its neighbor, despite being the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

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“There are 115 million Egyptians who are not happy with what’s happening in Gaza,” Ragheb said. “They’re watching it every day on television screens. The Egyptian soldier stationed at the border is seeing massacres in real time before his very eyes. So this will be a provocation.”

Some of that anger could be seen on Tuesday, when dozens gathered in the central Egyptian village of Agameyin for the burial of the slain soldier, 22-year-old Abdullah Ramadan. Thousands left comments on his Facebook page, calling him a martyr and a hero, and excoriating the government for tamping down the matter.

Though the Egyptian government says it aims to preserve the peace treaty, popular rage against Israel may force it into taking measures it would rather not take.

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“The problem for Egypt is that public opinion is already at a boiling point because of what’s happening in Gaza,” said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst and nonresident fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies. “If you now add dead Egyptians to the mix, that makes it all the more combustible. Should government officials get to a point where they have to do something to defuse discontent, then they may feel Israel’s conduct has created such public pressure on them that they have no choice but to do something more significant.”

A wider Israeli assault on Rafah could very well be that tipping point. On Sunday, hours before the shooting, Israeli warplanes attacked what they said were Hamas high-level targets in Rafah, killing 45 people in the process, Palestinian authorities say, and spurring a tsunami of international anger.

The wider destruction, meanwhile, has reached unprecedented proportions, aid groups say, with more than 36,000 people killed in Gaza, according to the Gazan Health Ministry, including many women and children. In the three weeks since Israel began what it called a limited operation in Rafah, around 1 million people have had to flee, many of them displaced before by the violence, according to the U.N.’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

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“This happened with nowhere safe to go and amidst bombardments, lack of food and water, piles of waste and unsuitable living conditions,” UNRWA said on X on Monday. “Day after day, providing assistance and protection becomes nearly impossible.”

The war was sparked after Hamas operatives killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel, mostly civilians, and saw 250 others taken hostage. About 100 hostages remain in Gaza, along with the bodies of more than 30 others.

Few believe the Israel-Egypt peace treaty — a mainstay of Egypt’s foreign policy that brings in roughly $1.3 billion every year in military assistance from the U.S. — is at serious risk. But there’s little doubt the situation is affecting coordination between the two nations, said Rami Dajani, project director of Israel and Palestine with the International Crisis Group.

“The cumulative effects of these events impact how these agreements are functioning and the practical, real-life channels of communication on intelligence and security,” he said.

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It also raises questions about how both sides will manage the border area in the future.

“For both sides, it’s not a question of walking away from the treaty,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Arab-Israeli negotiator.

But with Israel seeking greater control over Gaza through the Philadelphi Corridor while Egypt insists it won’t reopen the crossing without Palestinians in control, matters are likely to be fraught for a long time.

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Said Miller: “All of this poses an enormous amount of problems for the proverbial day after.”

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