Gaza: Egypt Army Establishes Border Security Zone

A Palestinian worker rests at the entrance of a smuggling tunnel dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip on 27 August 2013. (Photo: AFP - Said Khatib)

By: Orouba Othman, Iman Ibrahim

Published Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Palestinians in Gaza had just begun to breathe a sigh of relief after they managed to ease the Israeli siege on the Strip when news arrived that the Egyptian army intends to establish a security zone along the border with Palestine.

The zone, 500 meters wide and 10 km long, stretches from the Rafah border crossing to the Mediterranean. Egyptian authorities claim that the border area and the many tunnels underneath it are being used for the illegal smuggling of weapons and fighters, in addition to facilitating the escape and return of some Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Cairo insists that the Strip is a key source of the mounting instability in the Sinai Peninsula, vowing to “tame” Hamas for its role in supporting the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Palestinians in Gaza could not believe that Hamas managed to ease Israeli restrictions on the Strip through an agreement that ended intense fighting between the two sides in November 2012. Now, Cairo has stepped in to squeeze them from the Egyptian side by destroying what remains of the tunnels that Palestinians use to smuggle essential goods into Gaza.

According to Jabr Washah from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the Egyptian move may be technically legal, and the Israeli occupation is responsible for the Strip under international law. Still, there are humanitarian considerations that Cairo must take into account as it cracks down on the border area. Ultimately, he added, it is the ordinary Palestinians who pay for the political and security tensions between Hamas and the Egyptian army.

Washah criticized those in the Hamas government who are saying that the security zone is a prelude to an Egyptian attack, calling such talk “a fantasy.” However, he pointed out that Cairo acted without any coordination with the Gaza government or even consulting the besieged Palestinian population across the border.

Hamas sees the Egyptian step as unprecedented in its history, with one of its leaders – Yahya Musa – saying that those behind it “don’t know the meaning of Arabism,” adding that “this attack is not so much directed at Hamas as it is against the [Palestinian] people as a whole.” He even went so far as to accuse the Egyptian armed forces of viewing Gaza as a greater danger to its security than the Israeli occupation.

Musa dismissed threats coming from Cairo that the army intends to “tame” Hamas, rejecting any possibility that the two sides are headed toward a military confrontation, “where neither side stands to gain anything.”

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine leader Rabah Mhanna explained that the Egyptian government’s intention is to rid itself of all the tunnels, a prospect he does not oppose as long as appropriate alternatives are provided.


Two Kinds of Tunnels

According to the latest Egyptian army estimates, their campaign has shut down 240 primary and secondary tunnels, which they believe constitute 70 percent of the underground passages.

Palestinian analyst Samir Ghattas pointed out that there are two kinds of tunnels. One type runs right along the border and is used to smuggle light goods, foodstuffs, and fuel, which he said have been mostly flooded with water by the army. The other type is much more dangerous. They are bigger tunnels dug by Hamas using heavy equipment and often lead to the homes of their relatives on the Egyptian side.

Ghattas noted that the latter passages are particularly lucrative to those who run them on the Egyptian side, gaining large sums of money to smuggle weapons and fighters for terrorist and takfiri groups active in the Sinai. He expects the fight over these tunnels to be intense given their importance to both Hamas and the Egyptian military.

He explained that the army had asked residents to voluntarily report tunnel openings inside their homes or risk their houses being demolished. This has led to the destruction of two homes, with many more located in the proposed security zone under threat of being removed as well. Nearly 60 percent of the families living in this troubled border area are related to one of Hamas’ major leaders Fawzi Barhoum.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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