Photo Credit: Majdi Fathi/TPS
Ambulances transport Gazans from Gaza to Egypt for medical treatment through the Rafah border crossing on Nov. 1, 2023.

Egypt’s staunch opposition to a widely expected military operation in Rafah is under scrutiny as reports unveil the Egyptian army’s deep economic stakes in the area, raising questions about the true motives behind Cairo’s security concerns.

Evidence suggests that control of the Rafah crossing has shifted unofficially to Ibrahim al-Arjani, a Bedouin businessman with close ties to prominent figures including Mahmoud al-Sisi, the son of the Egyptian president. Al-Arjani, a former criminal turned influential figure, wields significant power over the crossing, operating various businesses in partnership with the Egyptian army and intelligence.


Rafah is the only border crossing out of Gaza controlled by Egypt. It has taken on additional significance since Israel closed the Kerem Shalom border crossing on October 7 for security reasons. Israel currently inspects trucks delivering food, water, medicine and other items at Kerem Shalom, but the trucks enter Gaza through Rafah.

Two companies, including Hela Tourism Company and Bnei Sinai, both owned by al-Arjani, dominate operations at the Rafah crossing. Hela Tourism, reportedly linked to Egyptian intelligence, manages the movement of people and goods, charging exorbitant fees, allegedly shared with Egyptian officials as bribes.

Recent revelations indicate that Hela Tourism is imposing steep tariffs, including $4,000 per truck and $5,000 to $10,000 per person, for passage through Rafah. These fees, Arab officials claim, are inflated to accommodate bribery payments, implicating Egyptian authorities in corrupt practices.

Furthermore, Egypt’s push for Arab countries to purchase food from Egyptian factories for Gaza, insisting on payment in dollars at inflated prices, raises suspicions of profiteering by companies purportedly controlled by al-Arjani.

The economic interests at play extend beyond the crossing itself. Tunnels previously used for smuggling have become economically competitive with the crossing, prompting Egypt’s crackdown on their operation. This shift underscores the significance of the crossing in facilitating lucrative trade routes.

Estimates suggest that the annual trade volume through the tunnels reaches $700 million, with thousands of Gazans employed in tunnel construction for minimal wages. The economic impact is further evidenced by Gazans’ preference for tunnel travel, even to fulfill religious obligations, to avoid hefty Egyptian tolls.

Additionally, the drug trade thrives in North Sinai, with al-Arjani allegedly controlling this illicit market due to favorable conditions compared to routes through Egypt.

Focus on Rafah
Hamas is believed to have four battalions in Rafah. Control of the town allows Hamas to commandeer humanitarian aid deliveries entering the Strip, while raising Israeli fears that the terror group will smuggle hostages into the Sinai.

Cairo denies weapons are being smuggled across the border, saying that in recent years, its military has destroyed 1,500 tunnels, built a six-meter-high wall, and created a five-kilometer-wide security buffer on the Egyptian side.

The Egypt-Gaza border is technically a demilitarized zone under the terms of the Camp David Accords signed in 1978.

To prevent weapons smuggling after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2006, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority reached an agreement to create a buffer zone along the border known as the Philadelphi Corridor. Cairo’s plans to secure the Egyptian side of the border with armed troops required Israel’s assent.

The next year, Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from the PA.

There are roughly 1.4 million displaced Gazans between Khan Yunis and Rafah. An estimated 700,000 Gazans are living in temporary encampments in the Philadelphi corridor. Egypt fears a mass migration of Gazans into the Sinai but also refuses, according to reports, any open security cooperation with Israel.

TPS reported in December that Hamas is pressuring Egypt by calling on Gazans to flee to Rafah.

At least 1,200 people were killed and 240 Israelis and foreigners were taken hostage in Hamas’s attacks on Israeli communities near the Gaza border on October 7. Of the remaining 134 hostages, Israel recently declared 31 of them dead.


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Baruch reports on Arab affairs for TPS.