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Are Gaza's tunnels and the situation in Sinai really a matter of Egyptian national security?

February 5, 2014 at 10:23 am

In what is being billed as a “national security operation”, the Egyptian army is busy demolishing tunnels underneath the border with the Gaza Strip. Bulldozers are also demolishing buildings to create a buffer zone up to 1km wider along the border; many homes are being lost in the process. A number of people, some of them armed, have been killed by the soldiers.

Far from providing security for the area, all of this has served merely to increase tensions between the residents and security forces in Egypt. For Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, the loss of the tunnels is exacerbating the already difficult shortages created by the Israeli-led blockade on the territory. The tunnels have been described as Gaza’s “lifeline” and came into their own during the Israeli assault on the civilian population in late 2012, when they were used to get essential supplies into the Strip.

The tunnels did not come into existence recently or spring up overnight; they have been there ever since the Israelis took control of the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. They have been used to smuggle arms and essential goods into the beleaguered and still-occupied Palestinian territory. Secret until 2007, they sprung to prominence with the full Israeli blockade imposed in 2006. In 2008, faced with closed borders and the suffocating siege, Palestinians broke through the border and flooded the Egyptian city of Rafah to buy basic necessities before heading back to Gaza. Those goods which couldn’t be carried before the border wall was repaired were sent to Gaza through the tunnels. Egypt’s security forces, generally-speaking, turned a blind eye to their existence.

So why demolish the tunnels now? To answer this question, we must first look at the growing role of the resistance in the Gaza Strip since Israel’s dismantling of its illegal settlements and withdrawal of its settlers and troops which had until then been based full-time in Gaza.

After Israel’s brutal military assault and invasion of Gaza in 2008/9, the resistance realised the need to expand its military capabilities and so developed its supply chain through the tunnels. Rockets fired from Gaza can now hit targets in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. That alone is sufficient incentive for the Israel-friendly coup government in Egypt to destroy the tunnels to cut that supply chain.

History is repeating itself and the latest moves are similar to those taken at the 1996 Sharm El Sheikh Conference which was held in order to rein-in the resistance. A new siege is being imposed on the resistance today, posing a great challenge for its ability to stand up to Israel’s occupation and aggression. It is Israel, with the US, which is putting pressure on Egypt to tighten the siege, taking advantage of the desire of the coup leaders to gain international support and recognition. However, the siege doesn’t only affect the resistance movements in Gaza, it also affects all Palestinians citizens, who are the backbone of the resistance.

Do the tunnels pose a threat to the Egyptian national security? This has been the mantra of the oppressive Egyptian regimes ever since Hamas won the Palestinians election in 2006. Egypt’s security agencies undoubtedly have a hostile image of the Muslim Brotherhood, and as an off-shoot of the movement Hamas is a constant fixation for them. Despite the improved relationship between Egyptian intelligence and Hamas over the past few years, during which Egypt acted as a mediator between Israel and the Islamic Resistance Movement on prisoner release deals and truces, as well as cooperation on issues in Sinai, it seems as if things haven’t really changed for the better as far as the intelligence officers are concerned. Military intelligence, for example, has no communication with Hamas even though there have been no serious security threats for Egypt from the Gaza Strip recently. The need for cooperation, certainly from the Hamas point of view, should dispel any speculation that Hamas is trying to undermine Egypt’s national sovereignty. During the January 25th Revolution, the government in Gaza secured the border and provided basic logistical support for the soldiers deployed along the border when communications were cut with central command.

In the midst of the ongoing media campaign in Egypt against the Palestinians of Gaza in general, and Hamas in particular, secure borders have been maintained. Moreover, Egyptian security forces have been unable to prove that individuals from Gaza have been undermining national security.

No one can deny that northern Sinai suffers as a result of years of government neglect; its 400,000 residents feel like second-class citizens with a lack of adequate health services, education and development projects. Although this may be a condition of the peace treaty with Israel, the fact is that the government in Cairo regards the area as suspect, with residents responsible for smuggling drugs and weapons as well as human trafficking. This has produced open hostility between the people and the state, with “Takfirist” groups seeking refuge there after escaping from government oppression in the eighties and nineties. Sinai, though, should not be treated as a security issue; it is a development issue. This was understood by Mohamed Morsi’s government.

Trade between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula provides a livelihood for the people on both sides of the border so the residents of Sinai worked hard to maintain security to keep the goods and profits flowing. Efforts to link security chaos in Egypt to the situation in Gaza and the tunnels doesn’t explain why bombs were set off in Thahb and Sharm El-Sheikh in 2004 and 2005, well before Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The boost in trade with Gaza possibly came about after the Israelis built a wall along the border with Egypt forcing smugglers and their suppliers to move to the tunnels with Gaza.

The Egyptian army has been forced by circumstances into a war that it cannot win; it is paying the price for the coup. Furthermore, how can unrest be described as a war for Egypt’s sovereignty when Cairo has to get permission from Israel in order to deploy more troops in the Sinai Peninsula? What sort of sovereignty is content to allow Israeli reconnaissance aircraft to overfly the territory at will and for Israel to bomb targets in Sinai?

Sinai’s problems cannot be solved by military operations lasting a few weeks; they require a radical solution. Claims of victory are delusory, as the army has resorted to bombing homes and mosques, reducing the nature of their struggle to a fight against ordinary Egyptian citizens. Its resources are being depleted in vain, as the increasing demonstrations against the coup show us.

The main beneficiary of all of this, you will not be surprised to learn, is Israel. In Gaza, it benefits from the supply route for military supplies to the resistance being cut or restricted. In Sinai, which it regards as a strategically important area, Israel is quite happy to see the Egyptian armed forces depleting their resources on pointless security operations. As the security situation in Sinai has an impact on the safe operation of the Suez Canal, Israel directs goods through its port at Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba and then overland to Ashdod and the Mediterranean Sea. A proposed rail link between the two ports will set Israel up as a financially-viable direct competitor to the Suez Canal. Strategically, Israel has viewed the Sinai as a possible alternative homeland for the people of Gaza.

In reality, therefore, neither the tunnels into Gaza nor the Sinai Peninsula pose security threats to Egypt; it is in Cairo’s interests to exploit Sinai’s natural resources for economic growth and maintain a strong Gaza Strip as a first line of defence against Israel. Ever since it withdrew from its occupation of Sinai thanks to the Camp David Peace Treaty, Israel has been looking for a way to re-occupy the peninsula. The actions of the Egyptian army may provide such a route for the Zionist state.

As far as the Palestinian resistance movements are concerned, they need to re-focus on struggling against Israel’s military occupation, including popular activism. That is the shortest and most reliable way to get the siege lifted and re-activate the main issues facing the Palestinian people, such as the right of return of the refugees and the status of Jerusalem. They must move on from blaming Egypt, ignore or counter the media disinformation and try to end the occupation. Sit-ins and demonstrations along the Gaza-Egypt border may be a first beneficial step in this direction.