Hamas claims it is being targeted by the Egyptian army in the flooding of cross border tunnels. Security experts say the moves are in defence of territorial integrity. Ahmed Eleiba examines the hornet’s nest of accusations
The political costs of the Palestinian schism are mounting. To what extent this is the product of the factions’ realpolitik approach to the problem is difficult to say but it seems every time the cause of reconciliation takes a step forward it takes two back. Clearly the factions lack the political will needed to reach the consensus between them that Cairo has been working to forge, sustaining in the process considerable material and political losses. The Sinai-Gaza tunnels, in particular, persist as a nagging security headache for Egypt. In the aftermath of every incident of politically related violence in Sinai, the tunnels are fingered as the gateway through which disaster struck.
Cairo was caught off guard by the barrage of criticism hailing from Hamas, accusing the Egyptian government of reverting to the policies of the Mubarak regime and colluding in the blockade of Gaza. More ominously, a document attributed to the Ezzeddin Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing, threatened strikes against the Egyptian Armed Forces for having adopted a policy of flooding the tunnels in order to shut them down.
Egypt began operations to close the tunnels in implementation of a provision of the Cairo-Washington-Tel Aviv-Gaza truce agreement that ended the last Israeli aggression against Gaza, and of a recent Egyptian Administrative Court ruling calling for the destruction of the tunnels in order to safeguard national sovereignty and restore security in the Sinai. The operation of flooding the tunnels towards this end is reported to have begun following clashes between the tunnels’ operators and owners and Egyptian military officers.
While some Hamas factions have tried to ease tensions, others complain that most of the flooding appears to have targeted Hamas-operated tunnels. As one Palestinian source put it, “it looks like Egyptian security is singling out Hamas tunnels out of the hundreds spread along the border between Gaza and Egypt”.
Egypt must take those actions it deems necessary to safeguard its sovereignty and ensure the safety and security of its borders. “To allow these tunnels to remain open,” security expert General Sameh Seif Al-Yazal told Al-Ahram Weekly, “is to allow the perpetuation of one of the chief sources of security tension in Egypt.”
“Security agencies recently reported that around 500 Palestinians have entered Egypt illegally, most of them members of Hamas. Efforts are underway to apprehend these elements… some passports were found and investigations revealed that their owners had been involved in terrorist operations in a number of other countries in the region. Sovereign agencies mentioned specific names and confirmed that these elements had been smuggled into the country through the tunnels to evade detection by border security. When the Armed Forces take decisions to protect the borders of the state they are exercising a legitimate right in accordance with their duties and assigned tasks, and in the higher interest of the welfare of the nation.”
While some movement across the border may be connected with Sinai tribes, security reports and sources say the rise in this activity is due mainly to increased infiltration into the Sinai by jihadist and takfiri elements from Afghanistan, Iraq and Europe. These have fed terrorist cells that have made their bases in the mountains of Sinai and become increasingly active against a backdrop of political anarchy and by dint of the large influx of arms. According to some sources, the armed capability of some cells matches that of ground units from the army. Following a military operation in Gabal Al-Halal that succeeded in uprooting terrorist cells that had used the area, military personnel discovered huge caches of arms, most of them Israeli in origin.
Military experts have not found conclusive evidence that Hamas operatives have been involved in terrorist activities in the Sinai. What they do say is Hamas will have to bear the consequences for what the tunnels help smuggle into Egypt because Egypt cannot tolerate the continuation of this source of danger.
In a telephone interview, Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahhar aired his doubts about the origin of the document attributed to the Qassam Brigades. He suspects that the document was concocted by “elements in Ramallah” that are seeking to undermine the relationship between Hamas and Egypt and force the movement into a collision course with Cairo. On the Egyptian army he said: “We regard it as the army with the best soldiers on earth. It is a source of pride for the nation, the winner of all its victories. If some members of our movement issued certain statements this was motivated by the difficult straits that the inhabitants of Gaza are forced to endure as the consequence of the blockade and, in light of which, one can only respond with objections to the operations to close down the tunnels, the sole vent for the people to breathe.”
Al-Zahhar stressed that the tunnels were “a question for individuals, not a question for the Hamas government in Gaza”, insisting tunnels on the eastern portion of the border, close to Israel, were not supervised by Hamas. Hamas’s security agencies oversee the flow of goods and products to and from Egypt in the other tunnels and they would never allow these tunnels to be used for anything that could be detrimental to Egypt’s security.
Al-Zahhar urged the reopening of crossings between Egypt and Gaza.
“What is keeping Cairo from reopening the crossings for Palestinians, especially now that it is no longer a party to the crossings agreement signed in 2005? We have learned that Egypt will reopen its borders with Sudan and with Libya. Why shouldn’t it do the same with Gaza? This would pave the way to a trade exchange worth at least $3 billion a year.”
General Hossam Kheirallah estimates that the volume of trade through the tunnels is in the neighbourhood of $7 billion a year. The Hamas government, he said, has a whole ministry dedicated to operating the tunnels and levying taxes on the goods and products passing through. Al-Zahhar confirmed this, adding that this applied to the portion of the tunnels that fell under the Hamas government’s supervision. Those tunnels, he claimed, were scrupulously inspected and monitored.
Regardless of whether Gaza is occupied territory, as Egypt describes it, or liberated territory, as Hamas officials claim, Egypt’s strategic view is to draw a line between the dynamics of Palestinian infighting and Egyptian security needs. Cairo’s position is that while the continued absence of the recognised Palestinian Authority from Gaza is an obstacle to a reconciliation agreement between the factions because it physically perpetuates the political rift between the West Bank and Gaza, it cannot serve as a pretext for violations of Egyptian sovereignty on the part of those determined to use the tunnels to harm Egypt by permitting the flow of arms and terrorist elements.
But does Hamas understand the concept of sovereignty and sovereign concerns?
General Seif Al-Yazal maintains that Hamas’s practices indicate that it has yet to grasp the concept of sovereignty. It operates on the notion that now that Egypt has an Islamist president the gateways to the tunnels should be flung open for Hamas.
In the opinion of Megahed Al-Zayat, director of the National Centre for Middle East Studies, the reverberations from the continued operation of the tunnels have reached a magnitude that defies the imagination.
“The repercussions [of these practices] have become so acute as to leave Egypt no alternative but to tighten its control over the borders and Sinai. The Armed Forces are acting on the premise that this area cannot be left prey to anarchy. That the tunnels allow the infiltration of [terrorist] elements, and Egypt has pledged to the US to halt the arms flow, means the tunnels have to be destroyed. In addition, large quantities of fuel are being smuggled out through the tunnels which makes it all the more imperative to close them down.”
Al-Zayat points out that Israeli officials have complained to Washington that Egypt is being lax in its commitment to fulfil the pledges it undertook in the Gaza-Israeli truce agreement, a point that US Secretary of State John Kerry would have conveyed during his visit to Cairo.
“There isn’t a country in the world that would allow its borders to be abused in this manner. Nor can one imagine ideology being allowed to leapfrog Egyptian national security. If Hamas is trying to hint that management of the settlement question can be handed over to other parties then it has clearly lost sight of the fact that Egypt’s regional weight and influence qualify it to handle such issues. [Hamas] tried [to circumvent Egypt] once before in the case of [Gilad] Shalit which it wanted to pass to the Germans.”
Sovereignty will always take priority over politics. The former involves a nation’s right to control its own territory in a manner consistent with the pursuit of its higher national welfare. This entails secure borders and other means of warding off threats to the country’s wellbeing. Such things are constants. Politics, on the other hand, is a grey area; what might apply one day has equal chances of being wrong the next. “I advise Hamas to appreciate this and, accordingly, to cease its disregard of the sovereignty of nations, and to respect sovereign conventions, traditions and resolutions,” said General Seif Al-Yazal. “More dialogue and negotiation is the proper way forward. Egypt’s national interests prevail over political agendas and political currents.”
In Al-Zahhar’s opinion, Egypt’s lack of sovereignty over the Sinai is the fault of agreements signed between Egypt and Israel which allow Israeli citizens to enter Sinai with an ordinary identity card while Palestinians have to obtain a visa, which is often refused. In addition, he said, Israelis use the Sinai as a conduit to smuggle Africans into Israel and for other illicit purposes such as drug trafficking, yet whenever the subject of bringing food and medicine into Gaza through the tunnels is mentioned the Egyptians bring up the idea of sovereignty. “The solution to this problem is to reopen the Rafah crossing while ensuring that proper customs control officers and other such officials are on hand to supervise and handle the passage of goods above ground in a normal manner.”
Al-Zayat counters: “Contrary to Hamas’s claims, the question of the tunnels has nothing to do with food, but rather with the traffic of prohibited substances such as fuel and the smuggling of arms such as antimissile batteries, in huge quantities. This is what heightens our fear that Egypt could become a playground for organised crime, drug trafficking and the illicit arms trade, which three generally go hand in hand.”
The director of the Middle East Studies Centre went on to point out that the coroner’s report following the Rafah attack last year indicated that the perpetrators were most likely Palestinians because the helmets that were found on the bodies were Palestinian-made. “It is common knowledge that Hamas owns and operates many tunnels and that some are designated for arms and others for the passage of persons. These tunnels have generated a class of businessmen and entrepreneurs who will not willingly give them up.”
Al-Zayat agrees that the Rafah crossing should be reopened and handled like any other overland border crossing in Egypt.
Al-Zahhar objected to the claim that the perpetrators of the Rafah attack were Palestinian. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said. “I wouldn’t send people to carry out an operation and leave physical evidence pointing to their identity. Anyway, nothing is produced in Gaza that carries a label, ‘Made in Palestine’... At the time [of the Rafah incident] Egyptian military intelligence called me and mentioned the names of two individuals that they said were involved in the Sinai attack. We affirmed that the individuals in question were present among us in Gaza, so how could they have carried out an operation in Sinai and be in Gaza at the same time?”
The Hamas official stressed that his movement would never work against President Mohamed Morsi due to the close ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. “In fact, the reverse is the case. We would work to support him, not to make matters worse.”