Egypt is threatening to suspend its peace treaty with Israel if Israeli troops are sent into the densely populated Gaza border town of Rafah, and says fighting there could force the closure of the besieged territory's main aid supply route, two Egyptian officials and a Western diplomat said Sunday.
The threat to suspend the Camp David Accords, a cornerstone of regional stability for nearly a half-century, came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said sending troops into Rafah was necessary to win the four-month war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Over half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million have fled to Rafah to escape fighting in other areas, and are packed into sprawling tent camps and U.N.-run shelters near the border. Egypt fears a mass influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who may never be allowed to return.
The standoff between Israel and Egypt, two close U.S. allies, comes as aid groups warn that an offensive in Rafah would worsen the already catastrophic humanitarian situation in Gaza, where around 80% of residents have fled their homes and where the U.N. says a quarter of the population faces starvation.
Hamas' Al-Aqsa television station quoted an unnamed Hamas official as saying that any invasion of Rafah would "blow up" talks mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar aimed at a cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages.
Netanyahu, in an interview with ABC News "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," suggested civilians in Rafah could flee north, saying there are "plenty of areas" that have been cleared by the army. He said Israel is developing a "detailed plan" to relocate them.
But Israel's offensive has caused widespread destruction, particularly in northern Gaza, and heavy fighting is still taking place in central Gaza and the southern city of Khan Younis. In Gaza City on Sunday, the remaining residents covered decomposing bodies in the streets or carried bodies to graves. Some streets were piled high with sand from bombings. Smoke billowed from destroyed buildings.
A ground operation in Rafah could cut off one of the only avenues for delivering Gaza's badly needed food and medical supplies.
All three officials confirmed Egypt's threats, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters on the sensitive negotiations. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other countries have also warned of severe repercussions if Israel goes into Rafah.
"An Israeli offensive on Rafah would lead to an unspeakable humanitarian catastrophe and grave tensions with Egypt," European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on X.
The White House, which has rushed arms to Israel and shielded it from international calls for a cease-fire, has also warned against a Rafah ground operation under current circumstances, saying it would be a "disaster" for civilians.
Israel and Egypt fought five wars before signing the Camp David Accords, a landmark peace treaty brokered by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. The treaty includes several provisions governing the deployment of forces on both sides of the border.
Egypt has heavily fortified its border with Gaza, carving out a 3-mile buffer zone and erecting concrete walls above and below ground. It has denied Israeli allegations that Hamas operates smuggling tunnels beneath the border, saying Egyptian forces have full control on their side.
Egyptian officials fear that if the border is breached, the military will be unable to stop a tide of people fleeing into the Sinai Peninsula.
The United Nations says Rafah, normally home to less than 300,000 people, now hosts 1.4 million more who fled fighting elsewhere and is "severely overcrowded."
Netanayahu said Hamas still has four battalions there. "Those who say that under no circumstances should we enter Rafah are basically saying lose the war, keep Hamas there," he told ABC News.
Israel has ordered much of Gaza's population to flee south with evacuation orders covering two-thirds of the territory, even as it regularly carries out airstrikes in all areas, including Rafah. Airstrikes on the town in recent days have killed dozens of Palestinians, including women and children.
Gaza's Health Ministry said Sunday that the bodies of 112 people killed across the territory had been brought to hospitals in the past 24 hours, as well as 173 wounded people. The fatalities brought the death toll in the strip to 28,176 since the start of the war. The ministry does not distinguish between civilians and fighters but says most of those killed were women and children.
The war began with Hamas' attack into southern Israel on Oct. 7, when Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted around 250. Over 100 hostages were released in November during a weeklong cease-fire in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners. Some of the remaining hostages have died.
Hamas has said it won't release any more unless Israel ends its offensive and withdraws from Gaza. It has also demanded the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including senior militants serving life sentences.
Netanyahu has ruled out both demands, saying Israel will fight on until "total victory" and the return of all the hostages.
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