Israel plans to recapture the Philadelphi Corridor, but experts warn that might be a bad idea
The 14km border that separates Gaza from Egypt has been used for years by militants in the enclave to smuggle weapons, technology, money, and personnel. To stop that from happening, Israel is now mulling the possibility of reoccupying it.
It’s been more than a hundred days since Israel kicked off its Iron Swords operation in Gaza following the bloody attack of October 7, when more than 1,200 Israelis were brutally murdered at the hands of Hamas militants.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to punish those responsible for the massacre, which also left more than 5,000 people wounded. He further promised to eliminate the Islamic group that controls Gaza, and to de-militarize the enclave that has posed a threat to Israel’s security. But more than three months down the line, officials in West Jerusalem still seem to be scratching their heads over how to achieve those goals.
The main challenge is the continuous flow of arms, technology, and money to Gaza, from which the militants of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to fire rockets. And Israel believes it is coming from the Sinai Peninsula, smuggled through the border via the so-called Philadelphi Route.
The term emerged in 1982 following the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt and the subsequent demarcation of the border. According to that agreement, both sides deployed troops on their respective sides along the 14km line, a move that promised stability and security. But several years later, in 1987, during the First Intifada, Palestinians started digging tunnels under the axis, through which they smuggled goods and weapons, as well as militants and money.
By 2005, when Israel evacuated its 17 settlements from Gaza and handed over the control of the axis to the Palestinian Authority, the Islamic group already had hundreds of such tunnels, and their numbers continued to grow – especially after Hamas seized power in the enclave in 2007.
“Initially, Egypt didn’t exert any significant efforts into stopping that smuggling, simply because it brought a lot of economic benefits to both sides,” said Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
“It was during this time that Hamas boosted its arms arsenal, smuggling in weapons, money and technologies. It was also then, when Iranian and Hezbollah experts and technicians arrived in Gaza and taught Hamas engineers on how to develop their own industry,” he added.
Then, in 2011, came the Arab Spring. The long-term ruler of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was deposed, and the radical elements in Sinai started rearing their heads. Terror attacks have become a regular phenomenon, especially after 2014, when Daesh (Islamic State/IS) took control over most jihadist groups on the peninsula, establishing the so-called Wilayat Sinai.
“These groups were against the newly established government of President Abdel Fattah A-Sisi. They were targeting the army and killing civilians across the country, so Cairo came to realize that there was cooperation between Hamas and those terrorists and it decided to break that link,” said Karmon.
Over the years, Cairo exerted multiple efforts into fighting the threat emanating from Sinai. It boosted its military presence on the peninsula, launched counterterrorism operations, and flooded hundreds of tunnels that linked Gaza to Egypt. But experts in Israel believe not all the loopholes were eliminated. Even more so, they are still being used to smuggle militants, weapons, and potentially Israeli hostages.
This is why in recent weeks, a number of Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, have stated that the Philadelphi Route should be recaptured, with Israel establishing full control over the territory.
Karmon says Israel has no intention of occupying the area. Instead, the idea is that his country would just beef up its military presence in the region to maintain security.
“Recapturing the area would be very difficult to execute, simply because we have a peace agreement with Egypt. Of course, there are right-wing voices who are calling for the occupation of Gaza or the building of settlements there, but Netanyahu understands the importance of these strategic relations with Cairo and he will not damage those ties,” the expert asserted.
However, in Egypt some are still worried. Hany Soliman, executive director of the Arab Center for Research and Studies (ACRS) in Cairo, says Netanyahu’s words are backed by actions.
One such action are negotiations with the Americans on the construction of an underground wall on the Egyptian side. The project, which promises to be 1km deep and 13km long, will be equipped with sensors and other technology, enabling digging to be detected, and as such deterring radicals from trying their luck.
The project is set to be funded by the US. But the possibility of such an endeavor taking place depends largely on the will of the Egyptians, says Soliman, and they might not want to rush it.
“Firstly, on the political and security levels, Egypt will not sign such a protocol, especially at a time when there is a lack of clarity on Israeli intentions and when there are concerns about Israeli attempts to pass and impose their displacement plan,” he said.
“And, secondly, let’s not forget the Palestinian Authority. It has full rights to object to this project. They can claim that the occupation of the Philadelphi axis is inconsistent with the Oslo Accords and that it infringes on their sovereignty”.
And there is also public opinion. A recent poll conducted in 16 Arab states by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies showed that 92% of those asked felt solidarity with the Palestinians. Of the respondents, 89% refused for their country to normalize relations with Israel, while 36% said their governments should severe relations with officials in Jerusalem. That might mean tighter security cooperation between Israel and Egypt on the Philadelphi axis is a mission too tough to implement.
It doesn’t mean that Israel will not try. At the end of October, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) captured large amounts of ammunition allegedly smuggled from Syria to Sinai, and from there to Hamas through the Philadelphi axis. Many of these arms were used by the Hamas militants during their deadly October 7 attack, and the fear in West Jerusalem is that the Islamic group would not be eliminated until the issue of the notorious border is resolved.
But Soliman warns that the establishment of an Israeli presence on the line will lead to dire consequences.
“It will be interpreted as a blatant assault on the peace agreement between the two states. It will risk making Egypt a party to a dispute over borders, and it will destroy the agreements between Cairo and the Palestinian Liberation Organization – something that will eventually undermine peace [in the region – ed.]”.
The problem is that the damage might not be limited to diplomacy, argues Soliman. The war in Gaza has displaced more than a million Palestinians from their homes, who found refuge in the south of the enclave in Rafah on the border with Egypt. An increased Israeli presence there might create further fear and panic among those masses, something that could push them to breach the border forcefully and flood Egypt.
President Sisi has already labeled such a scenario a “red line” for Egypt. He also indicated his country would not hesitate to use force to prevent it from happening.
“In such an event, Egypt may be required to take military action and increase forces to secure the border. It would lead the conflict to a very dangerous and sensitive phase and it would increase the chances of collision and confrontation,” warned Soliman.
In Israel, Karmon tends to agree with this assessment. He understands the complexity of the issue but remains optimistic. “Right now there are negotiations [between Israel, Egypt, and the US] that are aimed at finding the right formula and make sure that stability is restored,” he says.