Egypt Warily Eyes Gaza as War Builds Pressure on Its Border

The pressure on Egypt is building.

More than half of Gaza’s population is squeezed into miserable tent cities in Rafah, a small city along Egypt’s border, left with nowhere else to go by Israel’s military campaign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has threatened to overrun the area, and on Friday, he directed his forces to plan the evacuation of civilians from Rafah to clear the way for a new offensive against Hamas. But it is not clear where those people could go.

Rather than opening its border to give Palestinians a refuge from the onslaught, as it has done for people fleeing other conflicts in the region, Egypt has reinforced the frontier with Gaza and warned Israel that any move that would send Gazans spilling into its territory could jeopardize the decades-old Israel-Egypt peace treaty, an anchor of Middle East stability since 1979.

Israel’s next steps in the war could force such a breaking point.

During past conflicts in the region, Egypt has taken in refugees from Syria, Yemen and neighboring Sudan. But in this war, it has reacted very differently to the plight of its Arab neighbors, spurred by a mix of alarm over its own security and fear that the displacement could become permanent and undermine Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Egyptian leaders are also wary of the Islamist Hamas stoking militancy and spreading influence in their country, as Egypt has spent years trying to quash Islamists and an insurgency at home.

A Hamas-led attack on Israel on Oct. 7 set off the war in Gaza, and Mr. Netanyahu has called Rafah one of “Hamas’s last remaining strongholds.” However accurate that label, Rafah is also now the full-to-bursting shelter of last resort for about 1.4 million hungry, desperate people, according to the United Nations, most of them displaced from elsewhere in Gaza.

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