Why Egypt Supported South Africa's Genocide Case Against Israel at the International Court of Justice - Latest Global News

Why Egypt Supported South Africa’s Genocide Case Against Israel at the International Court of Justice

As Israel ravages Gaza, Egypt largely stands by, with growing concerns about developments on its border.

Its border with the Palestinian enclave was a route for aid to enter and leave, but Israel had final say over access to the border, even though it had no physical presence there until last week.

And it was that move – sending Israeli troops to the Rafah border crossing – that experts believe cemented Egypt’s belief that Israel was not taking its security and political concerns seriously and instead treated them “disrespectfully.”

Egypt has now taken its own steps – on May 12, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry confirmed that Egypt had joined South Africa’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) genocide case against Israel.

“The importance of this move is that it sends a signal that Egypt is not happy with what is happening in Gaza and Israel’s behavior,” said Nancy Okail, Egypt expert and president and CEO of the Center for International Policy. Although she downplayed the impact of the Egyptian decision on the ICJ’s final ruling, calling it a “symbolic gesture.”

Egypt is increasingly concerned about Israeli military operations in Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians from across the Gaza Strip have sought refuge.

Of particular concern for Cairo is its takeover of the Philadelphia Corridor, which separates Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Egypt’s parliament has warned that the Israeli military’s presence there is a violation of the Camp David Accords, which brought peace between Egypt and Israel.

“The way Israel has acted over the last week and a half has been incredibly troubling to Egyptian officials,” said Erin A. Snyder, an Egypt researcher and former professor at Texas A&M University. “They have effectively shown disrespect for the relationships they maintain [with Egypt].”

Red lines crossed?

The possibility that Israel’s ultimate goal in Gaza is to expel the Palestinian population has worried Egypt since the war began in October.

Early on, the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence wrote a paper proposing the relocation of the 2.3 million people from Gaza to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Although the Israeli government downplayed the report, Israeli politicians, including the far-right duo of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said they supported the “voluntary” migration of Palestinians from Gaza.

The repeated proposals have set alarm bells ringing in Egypt. The country views such a move of millions of Palestinians into its territory as a red line that must not be crossed, and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has warned Israel against such a move.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi at a press conference in Cairo on October 25, 2023 [Christophe Ena/Pool/AFP]

“Egypt has sounded the alarm about the destabilizing prospects of an Israeli military operation in Rafah and about any military action that could lead to the alleged relocation plan that emerged from Israel last fall,” said Hesham Sallam, an Egypt and Israel Middle East scholar at the Stanford University.

Israel appears to have taken action to allay Egypt’s concerns by ordering Palestinians in Rafah to evacuate to al-Mawasi, a coastal area west of Rafah, away from Egypt.

Israel claims al-Mawasi is a “safe humanitarian zone,” but aid agencies say tens of thousands of people are crowded into the area without access to adequate food or water.

According to the United Nations, 450,000 people have fled Rafah in the last week and nearly a million remain.

“The Israelis are eager to wrap things up in Rafah in a way similar to what they did in Khan Younis, or at least eventually,” said HA Hellyer, an expert on Middle East geopolitics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Royal United Services Institute.

“This is deeply worrying for Cairo because they do not want any further escalation along the border.”

Dead-end conversations?

Egypt hosted the ceasefire talks between Hamas and Israel and, alongside Qatar and the United States, played a crucial role in mediating between the two sides.

Boys watch smoke rise from Israeli attacks east of Rafah
Boys watch smoke rise as Israel attacks eastern Rafah on May 13, 2024, amid Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza [AFP]

However, Egypt appears frustrated by Israel’s refusal to end the war in exchange for the release of Israeli prisoners held in Gaza, according to Timothy Kaldas, an Egypt expert and deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy think tank.

“The Israelis did not seem to take seriously the ceasefire talks that Egypt hosted… and it is not clear to anyone what would make Israel agree to a ceasefire,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Egypt is probably quite frustrated that there is no end in sight to this conflict.”

Two days before Israel stormed eastern Rafah, Egypt, Qatar and the US pressed Hamas and Israel to sign an agreement. Hamas agreed to a modified version of the ceasefire proposal presented at the talks, but Israel rejected it.

According to the Israeli press, Egyptian military officials days later canceled a planned meeting with Israeli counterparts due to disagreement over the Rafah operation. “We don’t know what the meeting was about. But certainly this step – overlap with [joining the ICJ case] – is an indication that there is great frustration with Israel on the Egyptian side,” Sallam said.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant held wide-ranging talks with senior U.S. officials this week, seeking to ease tensions between the two governments.  Although Gallant is not part of Netanyahu's inner circle, he is one of the main architects of the campaign against Hamas in retaliation for the militants' Oct. 7 rampage, which Israel says killed 1,200 people.  The Israeli military response has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to health authorities in the Hamas-controlled enclave.  The Israeli team will continue to be led by Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, two of Netanyahu's close confidants, according to a person familiar with the matter.  The talks are expected to focus on Israel's looming offensive in Rafah, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are seeking refuge.  State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Wednesday: "We do it," when asked whether the US believes a limited military campaign in Rafah could eliminate the Palestinian militant group's remaining commanders.  The White House said last week it planned to discuss with Israeli officials alternatives to eliminating the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah without a large-scale ground invasion, which Washington says would be a disaster "Catastrophe." The threat of such an offensive has exacerbated differences between close allies the United States and Israel and raised questions about whether the United States could limit its military aid if Netanyahu defies Biden and goes ahead anyway.  Biden, who is running for re-election in November, faces pressure not only from America's allies but also from a growing number of fellow Democrats to rein in Israel's military response in Gaza.  Biden's decision to abstain from the United Nations, after months of largely adhering to longstanding U.S. policy of shielding Israel at the world body, appeared to reflect growing U.S. frustration with the Israeli leader.  Netanyahu issued a sharp rebuke, describing the US move as one "clear retreat" This would harm Israel's war effort and negotiations to release more than 130 hostages still held in Gaza.  U.S. officials said at the time that the Biden administration was puzzled by Netanyahu's decision and viewed it as an overreaction, emphasizing that there had been no change in policy.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in Jerusalem on February 18, 2024 [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Another delegation of Israeli intelligence officials is said to have arrived in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with their Egyptian counterparts about Rafah.

Peace treaty in danger?

Egypt has little leverage other than suspending its peace treaty with Israel, a move experts say is unlikely. The move could jeopardize the $1.6 billion in U.S. military aid Egypt receives annually under the peace deal.

“I generally doubt that there is a serious threat to the Camp David Accords,” Kaldas said. “The Egyptians will benefit in many ways from maintaining this agreement.”

Snyder said “anything is possible” and pointed out that anything Israel is doing in Gaza is unprecedented. However, it does not expect Egypt to suspend the treaty as it is central to US regional interests.

“I feel like the U.S. is very concerned and is working to make sure this happens [suspending the treaty] “That’s not happening,” she told Al Jazeera.

Snyder added that Egypt’s decision to join South Africa at the International Court of Justice should also be seen as an attempt to pressure Israel’s strongest ally and largest arms supplier to take action on regional security.

“This is not just about putting pressure on Israel. It is also about pressuring the US to exert its influence on Israel,” she told Al Jazeera.

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