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The mysterious decision to destroy the tunnels

January 25, 2014 at 2:44 am

Neither I nor anyone I know understands why Egypt has decided to demolish the tunnels connecting Gaza and Northern Sinai; not even the Mubarak regime resorted to this. I know that the spokesman for the armed forces told a press conference that the step was taken for security reasons; they’re important, but they’re not convincing as we were not told how the tunnels threaten Egypt’s national security.

Were they a source of smuggling weapons to Egypt or were they a path used by terrorists and extremists or drug traffickers on both sides? And has this been proved in documented investigations?

I know that the media suggested that this was the case, but there is a difference between guesswork and official announcements based on investigations or judicial sentences. To allow such ambiguity to continue is not fitting for a revolution that overthrew Israel’s “strategic treasure”, the Mubarak regime.

The destruction of the tunnels is also something that does not seem right for a Muslim Brotherhood presidency which many thought would be more just and understanding of the needs of the besieged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Some even expected that the Egyptian President would open the Rafah crossing in order to ease the blockade of Gaza; no one thought that the post-revolution government would tighten the siege, thus adding to the Palestinians’ pain and suffering.

Please don’t say that the tunnels are illegal, because the Palestinians only resorted to them out of necessity to get around an illegal siege which is still choking and humiliating them. Let’s say that the tunnels are a “minor offence” whereas the blockade is collective punishment, which is illegal in itself.

The people of Gaza are not exactly overjoyed at having to use the tunnels, which have seen more than 150 people killed due to electric shocks, suffocation or tunnels collapsing. However, they were a way for their economy to breathe, something that the previous regime understood most of the time as it looked the other way. Why did Mubarak turn a blind eye? It could have been because his regime thought it unlikely that the situation in the Strip would explode, or because it realised that it fulfils the needs of its people in addition to not posing a real threat to Egyptian national security. If Mubarak had doubted that at any time, he would have destroyed the tunnels.

Construction materials and daily consumer goods have been brought through the tunnels; if there has also been some smuggling of, for example, vehicles and even people, it was understood that this was the way that things are sometimes done in Egypt. If it is regarded as negative, it can be stopped.

Now, though, after 104 tunnels have to-date been either closed or destroyed altogether, prices in the Gaza Strip have risen sharply. The cost of a ton of gravel used for the reconstruction of buildings destroyed by the Israeli invasion has almost doubled, from 80 to 150 NIS (New Israeli Shekels); the same goes for the price of petrol, quite apart from the fact that the Israelis were already supplying it at exorbitant prices.

Egypt’s vagueness on the issue of the tunnels is down to two factors: the first is that the Egyptian security services are used to covering up their failures by resorting to accusing the Palestinians of committing crimes in Egypt. This happened with the bomb attack on the Saints Church in Alexandria, and in the accusation that Palestinians shot at demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Maybe the security services used the same tactic in the wake of the attack on the Egyptian soldiers at Rafah during Ramadan, when 16 were killed.

The second factor is that the intelligence services employ the same personnel as when they advised Mubarak; the leadership may have changed but their staff and methods are the same. It is likely that the decision to destroy the tunnels was made following advice from such officers.

I understand that some Palestinian leaders in the Gaza Strip had high hopes after Mohamed Morsi’s victory in the presidential election, but they didn’t pay enough attention to the sensitivities and complications of the Egyptian position towards the Palestinian issue arising from the Camp David Peace Treaty with Israel. The promises made to the US and Israel by Presidents Sadat and Mubarak mean that the Palestinian leadership has to lower its expectations, until further notice. I understand that a big country like Egypt has to put its own security considerations at the top of its priorities, but it cannot ignore Gaza’s economic needs. The two issues do not clash with each other. If post-revolution Egypt wants to restore its place in the Arab world, it has to adopt a different strategy for its dealing with its neighbours, starting with the Palestinians in Gaza.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.