Satellite Photos Show Egypt Building A Wall Near Gaza Strip As Israeli Offensive On Rafah Looms

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows wall construction in Rafah, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows wall construction in Rafah, Egypt, Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024. (Maxar Technologies via AP)
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Egypt is building a wall and is leveling land near its border with the Gaza Strip ahead of a planned Israeli offensive targeting the border city of Rafah, satellite images analyzed Friday by The Associated Press show.

Egypt, which has not publicly acknowledged the construction, repeatedly has warned Israel not to forcibly expel the more than 1 million displaced Palestinians now in Rafah into its territory while Israeli troops battle the militant group Hamas for a fifth month.

Israel's defense minister said Friday that Israel has “no intention” of pushing Palestinian civilians across the border into Egypt. However, the preparations on the Egyptian side of the border in the Sinai Peninsula suggested that Cairo is preparing for such a mass ejection, a scenario that could threaten a 1979 peace deal with Israel that's been a linchpin for regional security.

The Egyptian government did not respond to requests for comment Friday from the AP. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry on Feb. 11 issued a statement warning Israel over the possible Rafah offensive and its “displacement of the Palestinian people.”

The satellite images, taken Thursday by Maxar Technologies, show ongoing construction on the wall, which sits along the Sheikh Zuweid-Rafah Road some 3.5 kilometers (2 miles) west of the border with Gaza. The images show cranes, trucks and what appear to be precast concrete barriers being set up along the road.

Those satellite images correspond to features seen in a video released by the London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights on Feb. 12. The video shows a crane lifting concrete walls into place along the road.

The construction “is intended 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,” the foundation said.

Nearby as well, construction crews appear to be leveling and clearing ground for an unknown purpose. That can also be seen in imagery from Planet Labs PBC of the area. The Wall Street Journal, quoting anonymous Egyptian officials, described “an 8-square-mile (20-square-kilometer) walled enclosure” being built in the area that could accommodate over 100,000 people.

Homes and farmland in the area previously had been razed during Egypt's war on an affiliate of the Islamic State group in the area.

Hard-line officials within Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government have raised the possibility of pushing Palestinians out of Gaza despite strong opposition from Israel's main ally, the United States. The Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank are lands the Palestinians hope to have for their future state.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the country's three-man War Cabinet, said Friday that there were no plans to push Palestinians into Egypt.

“The state of Israel has no intention of evacuating Palestinian civilians to Egypt,” Gallant told reporters. “We respect and value our peace agreement with Egypt, which is a cornerstone of stability in the region as well as an important partner.”

A report by the Israeli Intelligence Ministry, drafted six days after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw over 250 others taken hostage, included a proposal of moving Gaza’s civilian population to tent cities in the northern Sinai, then building permanent cities and an undefined humanitarian corridor.

In the time since, the Israel-Hamas war has laid wide swaths of the seaside enclave to waste and killed more than 28,600 people, mostly women and children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

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AP correspondent Josef Federman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel.