Egypt's War against the Gaza Tunnels

The destruction of smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with the Sinai Peninsula is one of several counter-terrorism initiatives taken by the Egyptian government in recent years. The effective measures taken by President el-Sisi would prove beneficial for Israel as well

Smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt as seen from Rafah, southern Gaza Strip (Photo: AP)

The Egyptian army announced on February 2, 2018, the destruction of a tunnel under the Gaza border. A spokesman said that explosive devices in three warehouses, as well as a tunnel used by "terrorists," were destroyed.

Over the course of 2017, the Egyptian army has destroyed 63 cross-border tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the service added.

The destruction of smuggling tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip with the Sinai Peninsula is one of several counter-terrorism initiatives taken by the Egyptian government in recent years. Egypt sees the tunnels as a passageway for arms and militants it has been fighting in North Sinai, posing a risk to the country's security.

The network of smuggling tunnels connects Sinai with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, controlled by the Islamist Hamas movement. Hamas operates secret tunnels to facilitate the flow of weapons and militants into and out of Gaza. Hamas, which controls the Strip, effectively licenses the tunnels, providing electricity, taking a tax on smuggled goods, and banning the import of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.

The excavation of smuggling tunnels in the Rafah area began in 1982, subsequent to the division of the Rafah city between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The average smuggling tunnel is approximately 500 meters in length, and 20 to 25 meters deep. The tunnels may be equipped with wood-paneling, electrical infrastructure, communications gear, and rudimentary elevators in vertical shafts, to transport people or the freight of goods. The openings of the tunnels are often located within private Egyptian homes or other buildings, near or next to the border with Egypt.

The Egyptian authorities claim that the tunnels are used by ISIS and other terrorists who target the army and police in Sinai.

The Egyptian security forces developed a comprehensive strategy against the tunnel network:

The "Buffer Zone"

Following the Ansar Beit al Maqdis attacks of October 24, 2014, President el-Sisi has ordered the creation of a "buffer-zone" along the Egyptian border with Gaza in an attempt to quash the illegal tunnel trading between Sinai and the Gaza Strip. In January 2015, Egypt began work on doubling the width of the "buffer zone" along the border with the Gaza Strip. The "buffer zone" was initially planned to be 500 meters wide, but is now being expanded by another 500 meters.

The Egyptian army gave over 1,100 families who lived within the "buffer zone" only 48 hours to evacuate their houses. North Sinai’s Governor Abdel Fattah Harhour has stated that every family will receive EGP300 (US$40) in housing allowance for three months, and further compensation will be given for demolished buildings. However, tribal leaders from the region have expressed their dissatisfaction with the sums offered.

Flooding the Tunnels

Filling the tunnels with sewage: Since 2013, the Egyptian military is resorting to a new tactic to shut down the smuggling tunnels: flooding them with sewage. It has since been revealed that this was not a flood of water, but rather human excrement – hundreds, thousands of gallons of raw sewage pumped into the tunnels.

Filling the tunnels with seawater: The Egyptians dug a trench on the Sinai side of the border and then laid pipes parallel to the "buffer-zone" road, known as the Philadelphia Route. Water from the nearby sea was pumped in, creating a canal. The water channel flooded the tunnels, causing them to collapse. The Palestinians are trying to reinforce and waterproof their tunnels with cement and steel bars, hoping they would be saved from collapse if more flooding occurred.

Egypt is creating a large fish farm in the Sinai penin­sula on the border with the Gaza Strip, providing an economic opportunity while also trying to halt smuggling through the network of tunnels between Sinai and the Pal­estinian territory. Tons of sand has been carried away, and huge tubes placed to pump seawater to destroy the smugglers’ tunnels and form the base of the fish farm.

Fighting the tunnels by legal means

President el-Sisi has decided to combat Hamas's smuggling tunnels also through legal means. In April 2015, he signed a new law, according to which anyone who digs a tunnel along Egypt's borders would face life imprisonment. The new law came amid reports that some anti-government jihadists from Sinai had received medical treatment in hospitals inside the Gaza Strip. The reports confirmed fears of Egyptian government officials that the jihadists in Sinai are working together with Hamas to undermine security and stability in Egypt.

Summary

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's uncompromising war on terrorism, especially along the border with the Gaza Strip, seems to be bearing fruit. Egypt says the closing down of the tunnels is part of a crackdown against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula and their supporters in the Palestinian territory of Gaza Strip. As a result of this war, which began in 2013, shortly after el-Sisi came to power, with the destruction of hundreds of smuggling tunnels along the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, Hamas and other armed groups are now more isolated than ever.

President el-Sisi has shown real determination in his war to drain the swamps of terrorists. The tough measures he has taken along the border with the Gaza Strip have proven to be effective.

The destruction of these tunnels will be a major counter-terrorism move, reducing the motivation and capability of Hamas to initiate new offensive from Gaza Strip against Israel. Reliance on the tunnels seems to have progressively declined, and Hamas has also been unable to acquire more weapons and ammunition, owing to the ongoing Egyptian campaign to eliminate the tunnels.

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