Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya analyses the consequences of the deadly fire in Rafah, the clash between Egyptian soldiers and Israeli troops at Rafah Crossing, calls for EU trade sanctions on Israel, and China's growing influence in the Middle East

The death of Egyptian soldiers near the Rafah checkpoint and a fire in the Rafah refugee camp have heightened tensions between Egypt and Israel. Both Cairo and Jerusalem are currently avoiding further escalation, but domestic sentiment in Egypt is quite different. As a result, Cairo and other Arab capitals are increasingly pushing for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, involving as many other countries as possible. This effort was particularly evident this week during visits by representatives of Arab states to Brussels and Beijing, where they found full support. Furthermore, the European Union is seriously considering sanctions against Israel, potentially leading to a dispute between Washington and Brussels. However, there are other areas of contention between them, such as Iran's nuclear program. Interestingly, European countries have taken a tougher stance on Tehran than the US, which aims to avoid further destabilizing the Middle East at this time.

All eyes on Rafah

"All Eyes on Rafah" – this was the slogan of a social media campaign in support of Palestine this week. Indeed, it seemed that international attention was focused on this area of the Gaza Strip, where Israel recently initiated a long-delayed military operation. Israeli military officials emphasize that the operation is limited in scope. However, at the end of last week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) demanded that Israel cease military actions in Rafah. This issue might be brought before the UN Security Council, with a draft resolution already proposed by Algeria.

The trigger for the Algerian resolution was a blaze in Rafah on Sunday, which killed between 45 and 70 people, according to Arab media reports. The fire broke out after Israeli forces eliminated two high-ranking Hamas operatives. The IDF says the strike targeted a "closed building" located "far from the refugee camp." Israeli sources suggest that the fire may have been caused by an explosion of a weapons or fuel depot in the targeted structure.

These explanations have not swayed international public opinion, and pressure on Israel has increased. However, the US remains a restraining factor, stating that it does not view Israeli actions in Rafah as crossing red lines. Washington accepts Israel's stance that the Rafah operation is limited but continues to demand that Israel adhere to humanitarian standards. The Biden administration also understands that the situation could spiral out of control at any moment.

Hamas has taken advantage of the situation in Rafah, the ICJ ruling, and growing public support for Palestinians. On Thursday, Hamas representatives declared their willingness to agree with Israel only if the war in Gaza is completely halted, a condition they communicated to mediators. They specified that Hamas will not negotiate the release of Israeli hostages until a complete and long-term ceasefire is achieved. Previously, it was suggested that a temporary ceasefire would result from negotiations, including the return of hostages.

In essence, Hamas has raised the stakes significantly and placed full responsibility for the breakdown of previous negotiations on Israel. Arab mediators, Qatar and Egypt, are also blaming Israel, frustrated that their mediation efforts are failing. Egypt finds itself in a tough situation.

Egypt tries to downplay the death of its soldiers

On Monday, Israel and Egypt reported a shootout near the Rafah checkpoint that resulted in the death of an Egyptian soldier and injuries to several others (one of whom later died). Both sides have promised to investigate. Cairo leans towards the version that the shootout took place between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian militants, with Egyptian border guards caught in the crossfire and subsequently returning fire. The Emirati channel Sky News Arabia supports this version.

Experts agree that Egypt and Israel are attempting to avoid escalating the situation, as they need to maintain security cooperation. However, tensions are rising in Cairo. From the beginning, there were fears that the fighting in the Gaza Strip could spill over into Egyptian territory. Another major concern for Cairo is public discontent with the government's contacts with Israel. Despite the peace agreement reached between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the general Egyptian populace remains largely unsympathetic towards their neighbor, with anti-Israeli sentiments still present in the media. The Egyptian leadership currently seeks to avoid any public unrest. According to The Wall Street Journal, since the start of the war in Gaza, Egyptian authorities have arrested 120 people in connection with pro-Palestinian protests. In addition, the Qatari newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed noted that the funeral of the deceased soldier was held without proper military honors, and officials delayed the announcement of the second soldier's death.

In this context, Cairo is eager to achieve a ceasefire in Gaza as quickly as possible without losing face. Hence, the relatively harsh official statements directed at Israel and the symbolic halting of humanitarian aid through the Rafah checkpoint after Israeli forces took control of it. Cairo has blamed Israel for the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The United States is attempting to mediate the situation. On Thursday, Kan 11 reported that Israel and Egypt had reached a preliminary agreement to reopen the Rafah checkpoint for humanitarian aid to Gaza. The plan involves Israeli forces withdrawing from the checkpoint, but the details regarding who will manage it afterward are still being negotiated. Israel hopes that the United Nations and local Palestinian forces not affiliated with terrorist groups, primarily Hamas, will take over. According to reports, Cairo prefers to see a European Union mission at the checkpoint.

Tripartite discussions on this issue are expected to continue next week. According to Axios, Egypt agreed to resume the passage of goods through the checkpoint following a phone call between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and US President Joe Biden. Washington warned that it would publicly condemn Cairo for causing humanitarian issues in Gaza. However, the US does not want to publicly quarrel with Egypt, as it relies heavily on Cairo's involvement in future solutions to Gaza's problems.

Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90

The threat of sanctions

At the same time, Arab countries continue to urge the international community to recognize the state of Palestine. The issue was discussed at the talks between Arab states and the EU in Brussels earlier this week. The co-chairs were the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Norway, Faisal bin Farhan and Espen Barth Eide. Last week, Oslo, along with Madrid and Dublin, recognized the Palestinian state. Arab politicians hope that others will follow suit.

Meanwhile, the European Union is considering sanctions against Israel. Such a possibility is being discussed in case Israel fails to comply with the decisions of the International Court regarding the cessation of operations in Rafah.

Sources from Politico report that the EU is preparing to take action due to growing concerns about the humanitarian costs of Israel's military operations in the Gaza Strip. The incident in the refugee camp served as one of the reasons for intensifying the discussion on the topic. Especially since literally the very next day after the incident, the foreign ministers of the EU countries gathered for their regular meeting in Brussels.

In particular, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated that the decision of the International Court is "binding and must be complied with." She emphasized that continuing the military operation will not benefit Israel. "We see that it is no gain for Israel's security, that no hostage will be released if people are now burning in tents," she said. Representatives of other countries expressed similar sentiments, but opinions on sanctions are still divided.

Among those advocating for sanctions are Ireland, Belgium, and Spain. However, Germany and Austria are against them. Finland also does not support sanctions, at least those that could affect trade with Israel and cooperation in high-tech. Other participants at the meeting expressed more ambiguous views. In any case, preparations for a list of measures against Israel have already begun in the European Union. Among the most likely options is suspending the Association Agreement between Israel and the EU, which provides Israeli goods with preferential access to the European market. A decision has already been made to convene the Association Council to discuss Israel's human rights obligations. This is significant because the European Union is Israel's main trading partner.

Disagreements between the US and Europe

It's evident that the prospect of European Union sanctions against Israel won't sit well with Washington. However, there are growing disagreements between the EU and the US regarding the situation in the Middle East. The increasing number of EU countries recognizing the State of Palestine and condemning Israel is just the tip of the iceberg. In recent days, leaks have also emerged in the media regarding European-American tensions surrounding Iran.

Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The Biden administration is exerting pressure on European allies to abandon plans to criticize Iran's nuclear program at the upcoming June meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. According to sources cited by the publication, the US opposes Britain and France's intentions to censure Iran and is pressuring other countries to abstain from voting.

The WSJ publication coincided almost simultaneously with leaks in Western media regarding excerpts from the IAEA report. It states that over the past three months, Iranian stocks of uranium enriched to 60% have increased by 20.6 kg to 142.1 kg. This means that the presumed stocks of enriched uranium in Iran have exceeded the limit set in the 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers by more than 30 times. Further enrichment of uranium to 90% can be used to create nuclear weapons. In April, The Washington Post, citing its sources, reported that Iran is now "closer to creating nuclear weapons than ever in its history." Tehran's accumulated highly enriched uranium could be weaponized in a matter of days or weeks, with enough quantity to create three primitive nuclear devices within six months.

The US State Department has refuted the information from the WSJ. On the contrary, a spokesperson for the United States Department of State, Matthew Miller, stated that the US is actively increasing pressure on Iran. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting. In this context, it's worth noting that just last week, news emerged about another recent round of secret negotiations between the US and Iran in Oman regarding the situation in the region. It was claimed that the parties found common ground. Reuters also reported that the positions of the US and the European trio (Britain, France, and Germany) regarding Iran and the strategy of action in the IAEA sharply diverged. On Wednesday, the trio of countries circulated their draft resolution condemning Iran. The last time the IAEA adopted such resolutions was a year and a half ago. However, Washington doesn't want to anger Tehran, fearing a new escalation in the region amid the US presidential campaign.

Summit in Beijing

Another cause for concern is China's increasing activity in the Middle East, which pertains to economics and politics. The 10th China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, which opened on Thursday in Beijing, illustrates this.

These events have been held since 2004. Since then, Beijing has noticeably strengthened its presence in the Middle East. In 2023, bilateral trade between China and the Persian Gulf, according to Chinese customs data, amounted to $286.9 billion. Additionally, UBS analysts estimate that China's growing ties with the Middle East could increase global energy trade by over $400 billion by 2030.

Beijing actively involves Arab countries in its extensive "Belt and Road Initiative," which competes with the American plan to create the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC). The latter faces serious challenges due to the conflict in the Gaza Strip, as it suggested cooperation between Israel and Arab countries.

However, Washington does not want to simply observe Beijing's successes. Arab-Chinese technological cooperation may encounter difficulties due to American pressure on its Middle Eastern allies. According to Bloomberg, a leading UAE artificial intelligence company, G42, recently turned away from Chinese technology in favor of American one, signing a $1.5 billion agreement with Microsoft. Saudi Arabia's artificial intelligence fund, with a capital of $100 billion, hinted at its readiness to follow suit. However, the battle for Arab markets continues, especially as Chinese investments do not come with political demands like American ones. This suits Arab countries, which are unwilling to put all their eggs in one basket.

At the same time, Beijing has decided not to limit itself to economic expansion in the Middle East and has begun to show political activity. The most prominent example is the signing, in 2023, in the Chinese capital, of an agreement to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China is also interested in the Palestinian issue, without participation in which no country can be considered a significant player in the region.

In June 2023, China hosted the head of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to whom they presented a Chinese peace plan. Later, the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, was expected to visit the Chinese capital, but the trip did not take place. In April, China attempted to reconcile Fatah and Hamas, but like previous efforts by Moscow and Arab players, it was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, Beijing's voice on the Palestinian track is becoming louder.

"The Middle East is a land bestowed with broad prospects for development, but the war is still raging on it. War should not continue indefinitely. Justice should not be absent forever," said Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit's opening. He also expressed support for holding a "broad, authoritative, and effective" international peace conference on the Middle East and reminded that China supports full Palestinian membership in the United Nations. Additionally, it was announced that an additional 500 million yuan ($69 million) would be allocated as emergency humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. Another $3 million would be donated to the UN Middle East Agency to assist Palestinian refugees. Other political initiatives and backstage negotiations are likely to follow such actions.