Egypt builds wall near Gaza amid fears of Israeli offensive

Egypt is reportedly constructing a wall and clearing land near its border with Gaza, in anticipation of a possible Israeli ground operation in the city of Rafah. The move has raised concerns over the fate of the Palestinian civilians who may be forced to flee their homes.

According to satellite images by Maxar Technologies, Egypt is building a wall about two miles west of the Gazan border, along the Sheikh Zuweid-Rafah Road. The area is believed to be around eight square miles and could accommodate more than 100,000 people.

The London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights claimed, citing an unidentified source, that the work is meant 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”.

However, Egypt has publicly denied making any such preparations. The governor of Egypt’s North Sinai province, Mohammed Shousha, said the purpose of the activity in the area was “to conduct an inventory of the houses” destroyed during Egypt’s past campaign against Islamic State group in the area.

Egypt has also said it would not open its border to refugees, partly because it does not want to appear complicit in the large-scale displacement of Palestinians, but also out of economic and security concerns.

Israel plans to attack Rafah

Israel has announced its intention to launch a major offensive in Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, where some 1.4 million people are sheltering. Israel claims Hamas forces are in the city and must be “eliminated”. It also believes Israeli hostages – of which 130 are still unaccounted for – are being held there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday: “We will fight until complete victory and this includes a powerful action also in Rafah after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones”.

Israel had earlier instructed Palestinians to head to Rafah while fighting went on in the north of the strip at the start of its offensive. It is now directing civilians to move to open ground north of the city, ahead of the planned assault.

The offensive has been met with strong opposition from the international community, especially from Arab states, who have warned Israel against the possible consequences of an operation in Rafah and the “displacement of the Palestinian people” that could result from it.

The mass exodus of people outside of Gaza could put a strain on the peace deal signed in 1979 by Egypt and Israel and end up further destabilising the Middle East.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza

The Gaza war, which started on 7 October following Hamas’s attack on Israel, has already caused a humanitarian crisis in the coastal enclave, where more than two million people live under a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

According to the latest figures from the United Nations, more than 1,800 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 400 children, and more than 10,000 have been injured. About 65,000 people have been displaced and are staying in UN-run schools or other shelters.

The UN has also warned of the dire situation of the health sector, water supply, sanitation, and electricity in Gaza, which have been severely damaged by the Israeli airstrikes and shelling.

On the Israeli side, 12 people have been killed, including two children, and more than 300 have been injured by the rockets and mortars fired by Hamas and other militant groups from Gaza.

Several attempts to broker a ceasefire have failed, as both sides have rejected the terms proposed by the mediators, mainly Egypt and the US. The UN Security Council has called for an immediate end to the hostilities and a lasting solution to the conflict.

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