By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, May 18: A noteworthy recent development is Egypt’s joining South Africa in the on-going genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Egypt, which was neither here nor there vis-à-vis Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinians in Gaza since the war began in October 2023, suddenly made a bold anti-Israeli move, a move that could potentially break the 1979 Egypt-Israel Camp David Accord which has been one of the pillars of peace in the Middle East.

Tied to peace with Israel by the Accord, Egypt had turned a blind eye to the atrocities being continually committed by Israel in Gaza since the massacre of Israeli civilians by the Palestinian group Hamas on October 7, 2023.  

Other than allowing humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza across its border with Israel and hosting peace talks between Israel and Hamas mediated by Qatar and the US, Egypt had no inputs to offer in regard the mitigation of the conflict in Gaza.

Egypt was only hoping against hope that the war will end soon and its fragile economy will not collapse. Its economy was suffering from the disruption of shipping in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea by the attacks launched by the Houthis. There was a fear of a massive influx of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt from Gaza. The fear of war had kept tourists away hurting the economy significantly.    

Egypt felt particularly threatened by Israel’s decision to send its troops to Rafah on the Egyptian border, bringing the war to its very doorstep. Egyptians viewed it as a gross violation of the Camp David Accord. The unilateral Israeli takeover of the Philadelphi Corridor was particularly worrying because any changes to the security presence in the area should have been made with mutual agreement between Israel and Egypt.

There was a strong feeling in Egypt that Israel’s ultimate goal was to force out the 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza and into the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. According to Al Jazeera, Israel’s intelligence ministry had proposed the transfer of Gaza’s 2.3 million people to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir had said that they supported the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians from Gaza. In fact, the UN said that 450,000 people already fled Rafah recently.

Angered Israel’s moves and utterances, Egypt closed the Rafah crossing into Gaza. This had been the entry point for nearly a quarter of the relief entering the Gaza Strip before Israel’s operations. The flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza across Rafah had dwindled drastically since the closure.

Israel had said that it would never let Hamas take control of the Rafah crossing. The Egyptians didn’t want Hamas to be in control of Rafah either, but Israeli control was also anathema to them.

Egypt was getting increasingly frustrated with Israel’s unbending stance that Hamas must be totally crushed before military operations in Gaza were even paused. It looked as if the release of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas did not at all matter to Israel.

Egypt’s patience with the US was also wearing out. The US was unable to  oppose Israel even as it was keen that the war should end. Political opinion in the US was divided and any choice in this matter could affect President Joe Biden’s prospects in the coming election.

Given the frustration in Cairo, CNN and Wall Street Journal reported that Egypt could consider downgrading relations with Israel if it invaded Rafah full scale.

Economic Pressure

Since, October 2023, Egyptian tourism, gas exports and Suez Canal revenues have been seeing a steep decline. If the war and political uncertainty continues, the Egyptian economy will be shattered.

According to the Brussels-based “Crisis Group”, the Egyptian economy is already in “life support”. The economy is suffering from a growing public debt, which is now more than 90% of its GDP. There is a flight of capital and the currency has fallen against the US dollar.

The Crisis Group quotes S&P Global Ratings to say that Egypt’s tourism revenues are set to experience a 10-30% fall from 2023, which could cost the country 4 to 11% of its foreign exchange reserves and shrink the GDP.

Egypt got US$ 13.63 billion in revenue from tourism during the 2022-23 fiscal year. In 2022 three million Egyptians depended on the tourism industry for a living. This, the weakening of the tourism industry in Egypt will have a traumatic effect on millions of Egyptians.   

As a consequence of strikes in the Red Sea by the Yemen-based Houthis, earnings from the Suez Canal have come down significantly. In the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the Suez Canal brought in US$ 9.4 billion for Egypt. The revenue in January 2024 from the Suez Canal had fallen 50% compared with the same period in 2023, the Crisis Group estimates.

Egypt’s gas-based economy has also suffered greatly due to the war. Israel exports its gas to Egypt, where it is turned into LNG and exported to Europe. Because of the war, Egypt’s re-exports of gas fell by more than 50% in the fourth quarter of 2023, the Crisis Group says.

There are already nine million refugees in Egypt. Cairo has made it clear it will not support any more. It has said a firm “no” to the permanent displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, which many experts fear is Israel’s plan. Against this backdrop, Egypt has begun constructing a wall two miles west of the Egypt-Gaza border to forestall a refugee influx.

The other issue Egypt is facing is pressure from the IMF to carry out some unpalatable economic reforms to put the economy on a firm footing. Egypt is looking for a US$ 3 billion loan from the IMF to help it cope with the war in Gaza and the Red Sea security crisis. The main elements of the IMF’s economic reform package are selling stakes in dozens of state-owned enterprises, subsidy reductions, moving towards a flexible exchange rate, and making the military’s role in the national economy more transparent.

But these reforms are difficult to carry out. Thus, Egypt is actually caught in a cleft stick.

Israel at ICJ

Meanwhile, at the International Court of Justice, Israel has accused South Africa of “outrageously distorting” the situation in Gaza.  According to Times of Israel, Jerusalem pointed to its efforts to supply aid to Gaza as proof that genocide claims are false.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry Legal Adviser Tamar Kaplan Tourgeman and other attorneys alleged that South Africa is hand in glove with Hamas. South Africa recently hosted Hamas officials in Johannesburg, they pointed out.

They said that South Africa’s repeated requests to the court to order Israel to halt its military operations against Hamas demonstrated South Africa’s desire to preserve Hamas rule in Gaza.

Israel’s team informed the court that both the Israel Defence Forces’ legal department and an independent Israeli commission were investigating dozens of incidents of alleged criminal misconduct by Israeli forces during the current conflict, while Israel’s civilian law enforcement agencies have decided to conduct legal proceedings over some expressions of incitement by citizens.

This, they said, proved that Israel’s justice system was capable and willing to tackle any wrongdoing amid the war.

Israel’s lawyers accused Hamas of deliberately putting Palestinian civilians in harm’s way as a tactic in its war against Israel, noting that rocket sites, tunnel shafts, command and control sites are all embedded among the civilian population in Rafah.

By exploiting the genocide convention, South Africa is suggesting a convoluted reading of international law, under which any conflict can be brought to this court,” Israel argued.

The result would be that Israel would be denied its inherent right to defence and Hamas would remain free to continue committing its horrific crimes, Israel’s lawyers told the Court.



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