Satellite photos show Egypt building a wall near Gaza Strip

A border fence stands between Rafah and Egypt, amid fears of an exodus of Palestinians into Egypt, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues, in Rafah southern Gaza Strip.
| Photo Credit: Reuters

Egypt is building a wall and is leveling land near its border with the Gaza Strip ahead of a planned Israeli offensive targeting the border city of Rafah, satellite images analysed Friday by The Associated Press show.

Egypt, which has not publicly acknowledged the construction, repeatedly has warned Israel not to forcibly expel the more than 1 million displaced Palestinians now in Rafah into its territory while Israeli troops battle the militant group Hamas for a fifth month.

Israel’s defence minister said on Friday that Israel has “no intention” of pushing Palestinian civilians across the border into Egypt. However, the preparations on the Egyptian side of the border in the Sinai Peninsula suggested that Cairo is preparing for such a mass ejection, a scenario that could threaten a 1979 peace deal with Israel that’s been a linchpin for regional security.

The Egyptian government did not respond to requests for comment on Friday from the AP. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry on Feb. 11 issued a statement warning Israel over the possible Rafah offensive and its “displacement of the Palestinian people.”

The satellite images, taken Thursday by Maxar Technologies, show ongoing construction on the wall, which sits along the Sheikh Zuweid-Rafah Road some 3.5km west of the border with Gaza. The images show cranes, trucks and what appear to be precast concrete barriers being set up along the road.

Those satellite images correspond to features seen in a video released by the London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights on Feb. 12. The video shows a crane lifting concrete walls into place along the road.

The construction “is intended to create a high-security gated and isolated area near the borders with the Gaza Strip, in preparation for the reception of Palestinian refugees in the case of (a) mass exodus,” the foundation said.

Also read | U.N. warns Israel: Rafah invasion could ‘lead to slaughter’

Nearby as well, construction crews appear to be leveling and clearing ground for an unknown purpose. That can also be seen in imagery from Planet Labs PBC of the area.

Homes and farmland in the area previously had been razed during Egypt’s war on an affiliate of the Islamic State group in the area.

Hard-line officials within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have raised the possibility of pushing Palestinians out of Gaza despite strong opposition from Israel’s main ally, the United States. The Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank are lands the Palestinians hope to have for their future state.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the country’s three-man War Cabinet, said Friday that there were no plans to push Palestinians into Egypt.

“The state of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt,” Gallant told reporters. “We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

A report by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry, drafted six days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw over 250 others taken hostage, included a proposal of moving Gaza’s civilian population to tent cities in the northern Sinai, then building permanent cities and an undefined humanitarian corridor.

In the time since, the Israel-Hamas war has laid wide swaths of the seaside enclave to waste and killed more than 28,600 people, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Israel has no plans to deport Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said on Friday, adding that it would coordinate its plans for hundreds of thousands of refugees in the city of Rafah with neighbouring Egypt.

Deep-seated concern that Palestinians could be forced from the Gaza Strip has loomed large for both the Palestinians and their Arab neighbours ever since Israel launched its assault in response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Israel is set to attack Rafah, and sources have said contingency plans are being made in Egypt to accommodate Palestinians if the situation were to become critical.

Katz said Israel had no alternative but to enter Rafah as fighters from Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas were using the city as cover.

“We have no intention to deport any Palestinians out of the Gaza Strip,” Katz said, adding that Israel did not want to rule Gaza after it ends its war against the Palestinian military group Hamas that has been governing the territory.

“Israel does not want to hurt any Palestinian civilians, so we move them to safe zones while the Hamas are trying to prevent it. We have no intention to rule the civilian life in Gaza after the war. Our goal is to ensure that Gaza will be dematerialised,” he said.

When asked where the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the city would go, Katz suggested that once Gaza’s second city Khan Younis had been cleared of Hamas fighters, they could return there or to the West of the enclave.

Western officials and aid agencies have warned that refugees being forced into Egypt would be a catastrophe. Katz appeared to downplay that option and said Israel was discussing how to evacuate refugees with the United States but would also coordinate with Egypt.

“We will deal (with) Rafah after we speak with Egypt about it. We’ll coordinate it, we have a peace accord with them and we will find a place which will not harm the Egyptians,” Katz said. “We will coordinate everything and not harm their interests.” 

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