Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Demarcating the Egyptian-Israeli Border: Benefits and Obstacles

Egyptian ship intercepts a Palestinian fishing boat on the maritime border between Egypt and the Palestinian enclave
An Egyptian ship intercepts a Palestinian fishing boat on the maritime border between Egypt and the Palestinian enclave, off the coast of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 17, 2015. SAID KHATIB / AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

Despite being an African country, part of Egypt is located in Asia, sharing land and sea borders with some countries from both continents. That includes Sudan, Libya, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

These mutual borders have always been a source of tension, some of which are yet to be resolved.

Perhaps the most prominent is the maritime boundaries with Israel since the latter consistently breaches the Egyptian waters. That is especially true in the area near Cyprus, where the Leviathan gas field is located, where Israel started the digging process and hence benefitting from the reserve.

Demarcating the Borders

Egypt refuses to request demarcating its eastern borders with Israel because it denies Palestine the right to demarcate theirs. According to official statements by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, this was, and still is, one of the principles of the Egyptian negotiations in the Camp David accord.

The Palestinian-Egyptian negotiations regarding the maritime border’s demarcation did not conclude for three years. Cairo’s firm rejection of the maps deposited by Palestine with the United Nations on its borders in the Mediterranean can be attributed to this inconclusiveness. 

It considers these maps a clear violation from the Egyptian side. The Israeli objections played a role, too, since Israel does not consider Palestine eligible to sign such agreements because it does not have full sovereignty.

After failing to reach a bilateral agreement with Egypt for three years, Palestinian officials were forced to deposit maps of their maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Moreover, it was also to preserve their rights in the face of Israeli aggression after discovering colossal gas fields in the Mediterranean.

Natural Gas Exploration

On July 18, 2012, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry refuted media reports about Israel discovering two natural gas fields within the Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone. According to the ministry, the circulating map was incorrect. This statement came after news about Israel and Cyprus discovering two natural gas fields reserves worth about 200 billion dollars.

Military experts emphasised that securing the Mediterranean gas fields located within Egypt’s maritime border is an existing problem and is not new. The Egyptian regime’s complacency towards its rights is a problem that started during the ousted President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak’s era.

The Committee of Arab Affairs, Defence and National Security of the former Shura Council headed by Reda Fahmy requested that the border with Cyprus be re-demarcated. The request claims the previously signed agreement gave up the Egyptian right for the mountains of Erat and Steins. 

According to maps the Library of Alexandria possesses dating back to 200 BC, these two mountains lie within the Egyptian borders. In 2010, the Administrative Court of Justice considered a lawsuit to cancel the agreement to demarcate the Exclusive Economic Zones. The 2004 demarcation between Egypt and Cyprus resulted in Cyprus and Israel’s acquisition of natural gas fields.

Security Forces

In November 2021, the Egyptian and Israeli armies announced, in two separate statements, the amendment to the security agreement concluded between the two sides to strengthen the Egyptian border patrol forces along Rafah. That step comes “to preserve Egyptian national security and continue the efforts to control and secure the strategic north-eastern borders.” The Israeli army indicated that the amendments were politically approved without further comment.

The peace treaty signed between the two sides on March 26, 1979, imposed strict restrictions on the number of forces deployed on both sides of the Sinai border. However, it allowed an increase if it were mutually agreed upon. The treaty states that “mutual security arrangements will be established, including limited armaments in Egyptian and Israeli territories, United Nations peacekeeping forces and U.N. observers.”

Incidents on The Borders

According to the Jerusalem Post, and contrary to popular belief, the Israeli-Egyptian border is the hottest and most active one, not the Israeli border with Gaza or Lebanon.

Soldiers protecting those borders must deal with two threats. The first is the terrorist group, the “Islamic State – Sinai Province,” and the second is the criminal threat of drug smuggling.

Throughout the years, the Egyptian-Israeli border witnessed many incidents, crossfire, and casualties on both sides.

Problems in Demarcating Maritime Borders

The problems between opposite coastal states do not arise if the distance between the two coasts exceeds 400 nautical miles. Each country would typically be bound by 200 miles, and the two Exclusive Economic Zones would not overlap. However, when the distance is less than 400 miles, it can lead to conflict. In this case, the two parties must agree on calculating the maritime boundaries based on the mid-line between them.

Nevertheless, the eastern Mediterranean is shared by multiple countries. In this case, the exclusive economic zone is determined by the two opposing countries with the shortest distance between their coasts. They have the right to own the exclusive economic zones equally between them.

Therefore, demarcating the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean is apparently complicated, considering the historical conflicts between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Most eastern Mediterranean countries have not yet drawn their maritime boundaries, meaning Egypt is not the only one.

Mutual Interests

US President Jimmy Carter (C) congratulates Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (L) and Israeli Premier Menachem Begin (R) in three-way handshake on March 26, 1979 on the north lawn of the White House, Washington DC, after signing the historic US-sponsored peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. CONSOLIDATED NEWS PICTURES / AF

Israel provides Egypt with access to the White House. In return, a stable border with Egypt allows Israel to focus on the threats along the other borders. Furthermore, having a powerful Arab ally is an integral part of Israel’s foreign and defence policies. Since the United States is working to reduce its interference in the Middle East, this matter may increase the closeness between Israel and Egypt.

However, tourism did not flourish between the two sides. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis enjoy visiting historical sites and beaches in Egypt each year, but not the other way around. Only a few thousand Egyptians enter Israel as tourists annually. That can be attributed to the bureaucratic procedures imposed on Egyptians travelling to Israel. It can also be interpreted as reluctance from the Egyptian government towards such relations with Israel.

Economically, nonetheless, the trade between the two countries has gradually increased. Four Qualifying Industrial Zones shared by Israel, Egypt, and the US have boosted trade between Egypt and Israel. The QIZ agreement was signed in 2004, allowing Egypt to export duty-free products to the United States. These exports are cooperatively manufactured in both Egypt and Israel.

The agreement came several years after the peace treaty, which provided evidence of the gradual growth of relations. Another agreement was also signed between Israel and Egypt, allowing Israeli natural gas transport to Europe through Egypt.

Umm Rashrash – Eilat

Far from the sea, the issue of the Umm Rashrash Village preoccupies the Egyptian street until now, despite the Egyptian government insisting that it does not fall within Egyptian territory.

Umm Rashrash, or Eilat as Israel calls it, is located in a border area between Egypt and Israel, and it occupies a 1,500 square meters-space. The controversy arose when officials in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that Umm Rashrash was not part of the negotiations regarding the Egyptian maritime boundaries.

These statements agitated the “People’s Front for the Liberation of Umm Rashrash,” an independent movement that includes jurists and activists. In 2006, the front filed lawsuits against several Foreign Ministry officials, accusing them of selling the village to Israel. 

The controversy erupted again in the wake of the Jan. 25 revolution after politicians and lawyers filed a lawsuit against Mubarak’s regime officials for their “refusal” to transfer Umm Rashrash to international arbitration.

However, these attempts rang hollow, especially since Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the last foreign minister during the Mubarak era, stated that modern-day Egyptian borders are those in the 1906 and 1922 agreements. He stressed that Umm Rashrash is not located within Egyptian territory according to these two agreements.

Similarly, Major General Fouad Suleiman, a military expert, stated to Al Bawaba News that neither military marches nor wars would solve the crisis and prove our rights. “We must prove to the international community that there is an encroachment on the Egyptian borders”, he added. 

We have been neglecting this issue for a long time, and it is time to stop. He also described the statements issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum as “incorrect and illogical.” The Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum stated that the area of conflict in the Mediterranean does not fall within the Egyptian borders but rather outside it. Moreover, the Major General calls for an international investigation to prove Egypt’s eligibility in the region.

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