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Egypt - Gaza Border

Gaza resembles a big open-air prison, 100% under the mercy of Israel [and Egypt]. The strip is surrounded by electric fences, watchtowers and barbed wire - making escape impossible.

In January 2008 Hamas demolished Egypt's control of the Rafah terminal, between Egypt and Gaza, by setting off explosions in the barrier fence allowing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flood into Rafah and Sinai to purchase fuel and food. There were exchanges of fire between Egyptian security Hamas gunmen but there were no casualties. Bulldozers removed barbed wires on the border and rubbles of concrete. Egypt President Hosni Mubarak tried to state he allowed the Palestinians in, but that is just an attempt to give the impression he is in control of the situation. Hamas was operating under Tehran's direction. Iran intended to build on this foundation of protest and use it to support the Egyptian opposition against Mubarak who Tehran believes is still too close to the West.

Jerusalem called on Cairo to control the situation but that was initially impossible. Egypt was supposed to have taken control of the terminal when Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and to cooperate with Israel on security. But Cairo never gave more than a token effort in the false assumption the militancy was only a threat to Israel and not to the Egyptian government. Cairo began to break every agreement with Jerusalem especially when it allowed Hamas agents to cross into Gaza carrying $150 million of funding from Tehran in December, practically the day after Mubarak met Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

The Oslo Accords signed in 1994-1995 granted the Palestinian Authority control over most of the Gaza Strip. The agreements specify that the IDF will continue to control a narrow strip between the area under Palestinian control and the border with Egypt, called the "Philadelphi Route." On both sides of the route are the towns of Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah.

During the ensuing years, the area has been used for smuggling, and rapidly became the main pipeline for transporting weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip. The smuggled weapons, which account for the majority of the weaponry in the Gaza Strip, are then used for carrying out terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians and IDF soldiers. Currently, the area is being used for smuggling weapons, drugs, goods and later, human beings.

The flow of weapons, ammunition, and other contraband under the Egyptian border has contributed significantly to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Open-source estimates place the number of tunnels along the Israel-Gaza border between 300 and 1,000. Clearly, clandestine cross-border tunnels are a vulnerability of sufficient scope and magnitude to warrant the development of a coordinated interagency counter-tunnel capability.

In October 2005, the Egyptian military assumed responsibility for border security. Since that time, security officials claim to have identified and sealed hundreds of tunnel openings, with new discoveries occurring daily. Egypt deployed 750 border guards to secure the Rafah crossing after Israel's disengagement from Gaza in 2005. Israel refused an Egyptian request to deploy military border guards, instead ofpolice, for greater control of smuggling along the entire border in Sinai. Israelis argued that anincreased military presence would require changes in the military annex to the 1979 peace treaty and contend that 750 border guards plus 650 general police who also are present should suffice to do the job, if there is the will.

The European Union Border Assistance Mission at the Rafah Crossing Point - code name EUBAM Rafah - was launched on 24 November 2005, to monitor the operations of the border crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, after Israel and the Palestinian Authority concluded an Agreement on Movement and Access on 15 November 2005. The Council of the European Union welcomed the Agreement and approved that the EU should undertake the third-party role proposed. The operations of EUBAM were suspended on 13 June 2007 due to the Hamas takeover of the Gaza Strip. The European Union has a policy of no contact with Hamas.

Although the US had no intelligence to support Israeli claims in 2007 that heavy weaponry moved through the tunnels, even Egyptian officials privately admitted that their anti-smuggling efforts remained insufficiently effective. Egypt was destroying only tunnel openings, and did not exploit or destroy the primary tunnel network. After the US Secretary of State's intervention on 16 October 2007, Egyptian Minister of Defense Tantawi relented and permitted a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) team to assess the border situation. Tantawi responded to that assessment with a Letter of Request for robots to explore the tunnels and sensors to detect digging, among a total of US$23 million in specialized equipment and training for border security. The USACE experts were careful to warn, however, that the Gaza border situation represented a "worst case" situation for tunneling, and that equipment is only part of the solution.

The Egyptians claimed in 2007 that they responded aggressively to Israeli intelligence leads, while both sides bickered over whether and how Egypt could deploy more Border Guard Forces. Meanwhile, the Egyptians continued to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to "squeeze" Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel's "siege" of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman said Egypt wanted Gaza to go "hungry" but not "starve." Minister of Defense Field Marshal Tantawi and the Director of Military Intelligence MG Mowafy both pressed for the return of EUBAM monitors to oversee the crossing between Gaza and Egypt of Palestinians with urgent humanitarian circumstances.

Israeli officials repeatedly expressed frustration with Egypt's failure to control arms-smuggling into Gaza. P.L. 110-161, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008, signed into law on December 26, 2007, would have withheld $100 million in ForeignMilitary Financing (FMF) from Egypt until the Secretary of State reported that Cairo had takensteps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels that lead from Egypt to Gaza,among other measures. Egypt rejected the conditions and, on December 31, Foreign MinisterAhmad Abu al Ghayt blamed the "Israel lobby" for trying to damage Egyptian interests inCongress, and warned that Egypt would retaliate if Israel continued trying to undermine Cairo'sties to Washington.

Egypt continued to use a wide range of military, security, intelligence, and diplomatic efforts to combat the flow of arms to Gaza. The effectiveness of these efforts is difficult to assess, and our visibility into these programs is limited. However, Egypt has reported success in identifying and intercepting arms smuggling networks from Sudan to Cairo, as well as interdicting illicit funds destined for Gaza. Israeli officials have also reported some satisfaction with increased Egyptian efforts. MOD is also participating in a USG-financed project - led by EGIS - to install 15 x-ray scanners along the vehicular entrances to the Sinai to search for arms and explosives.

Subject matter experts from the US Army Corps of Engineers Engineer Research and Development Center built a government off-the-shelf system to address rapidly evolving tunnel detection requirements in Iraq. They named their solution theTunnel Activity Detection System (TADS). This system was rapidly developed and tactically used in responseto an operational needs statement to detect and confirmtunnel activity within theater interment facilities in thecombat zone. The system worked.

In fact, it successfully detected a tunnel that was built by the commander of an internment facility who initially doubted the reliability of the system. Since the first successful operational deploymentof the TADS in 2007, the system has matured and markedly improved. Redesignated as the Border Tunnel Activity Detection System (BTADS), it has become the core technology for USNORTHCOM andthe DHS counter-tunnel initiative. Moreover, the system has been fielded in support of foreign allies and has demonstrated notable tactical effectiveness and operational utility in support of this internationalcountertunnel effort. BTADS - on-hold because of security concerns - and the subterranean steel wall MOD has begun to install along the Egypt-Gaza border, will provide a sufficient counter-smuggling capability.

In January 2008 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians surged across the border into Egypt after Hamas militants bulldozed the fence to protest the closed border. President Mubarak thought it politically unwise to use lethal force against the unarmed Palestinians, and two weeks were erquired to persuade them to leave. Egypt has since constructed a sturdier barrier to regain control of Egypt's international border. Gazan breaches in the security wall with Egypt in January 2008 highlight difficulties in monitoring the Sinai border.

By early 2008 the Egyptians were building a concrete barrier wall on the Egyptian side to avoid a repeat of the January 2008 incursion, in which thousands of Gazans poured into Rafah. Following the January HAMAS breach of the Gaza border, the Government of Egypt completed a three-meter high stone wall along the length of the 14-kilometer border and devoted more personnel to searching for tunnel openings. Egyptian security forces continue to improve counter-smuggling efforts along the Gaza border following the June 2008 Egyptian-brokered "tahdiya" ("calming") between Israel and Palestinian groups.

Once the troubles began in Gaza, extra efforts were made to stop the smuggling business across the tunnels. In a final attempt to block access to Sinai by Hamas and its allies, Egypt arranged at one point to build a steel barrier. The project, which was to be completed with the help of American contractors, would have created a steel barrier running so deep along the borders that all tunnelling would end, but this was not fully implemented.

By mid-2008 the Egyptian MOD had began installation of a 19-meter deep and 2 centimeters thick subterranean steel wall along the Egypt-Gaza border. The MOD was working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the wall did not interfere with the BTADS sensors. It would be difficult for smugglers to cut through the steel wall, but that BTADS would pick up any attempted breach.

During his August 2008 visit, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly praised Egypt's efforts to shut down tunnels. Public criticism by HAMAS of Egypt's handling of the Gaza border has increased in following months, which may indicate that counter-smuggling efforts have struck a nerve within Gaza. As of mid-September 2009, Government of Egypt officials claimed to have identified and sealed hundreds of tunnels over the last two years, with new discoveries occurring daily.

Beginning in mid-October 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed the first phase of a $23 million FMF-funded counter-smuggling system along 3.6 kilometers of the central portion of the Egypt-Gaza border. The seismic-acoustic counter-tunneling system, which can detect sounds of tunnel digging and movement through tunnels, should improve Government of Egypt interdiction efforts. The first phase was expected to be operational by April 2009. To be successful, the Government of Egypt must use their new knowledge of the tunnel routes to destroy tunnels and break up smuggling rings.

Egypt also viewed an improvement in the political and economic situation in Gaza as crucial to long-term border security. On the political front, Government of Egypt efforts on Palestinian reconciliation continue at full steam. On the economic front, increasing humanitarian flows into Gaza is crucial to undermining the commercial smuggling networks that arms smugglers have exploited, especially if increased Government of Egypt counter-smuggling efforts succeed. Economic deprivation in the Sinai also fosters cross-border smuggling rings. USAID is supporting a number of economic development projects, including a micro-finance program in Northern Sinai and a $10 million project in central Sinai to develop infrastructure, community centers, schools, and eco-tourism.

Egyptians, the Israelis, the United States, and others are engaged in efforts to stop the smuggling from the Sinai through primarily tunnels but by other means as well into Gaza so Israel can no longer be threatened. Immediately after the war, the Hamas immediately began to try to restore those tunnels. But there are specific steps to counter that in new means. Scientists in Israel, concerned about the hundreds of smugglers' tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt, have developed a fiber-optic system. Buried cables can detect even tiny movements of nearby soil particles, indicating digging activity. Egypt has agreed to engage in a significantly ratcheted-up effort.

In most cases, following the exposure of a tunnel, Egyptian forces have either placed a guard at the mouth of the tunnel or blocked the tunnel's entrance rather than taking steps to demolish the tunnel completely. As such, smugglers have been able to employ these tunnels again after a short interval. When a tunnel entrance has been blocked, diggers typically cut a new access channel nearby and connect it with the existing tunnel closer to the border. In addition, there is no evidence that Egyptian forces are taking steps to arrest and punish smugglers. These rings are rarely broken up, and in the absence of lengthy jail terms, there is little deterrence.

Hamas continued to smuggle long-range rockets into Gaza via tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor. Beyond small arms, Israeli intelligence estimates that some 250 tons of explosives, 80 tons of fertilizer, 4,000 rocket-propelled grenades, and 1,800 rockets were transported from Egypt to Gaza from September 2005 to December 2008. According to Israeli figures, from June 2007 to December 2008, Hamas increased not only the quantity but also the quality of its arsenal in Gaza, improving the performance of its improvised explosive devices and expanding the distance and payload capabilities of its Kassam rocket warheads.

Most small-range rockets fired from Gaza prior to and during the recent conflict were locally produced. However, Hamas acquired a formidable collection of imported 122-mm. rockets--the longer-range Grads--brought in piecemeal through tunnels and reassembled in Gaza. The smuggling of commodities, arms, explosives, and funds in support of HAMAS through tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt continued to prove problematic. Israeli officials asserted that Egypt took steps to prevent arms smuggling from the Sinai into Gaza, but can do much more in terms of arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating smugglers, destroying tunnel infrastructure, and providing socio-economic alternatives for Bedouin involved in smuggling activities.

Israeli warplanes have attacked smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The IAF carried out regular air strikes against smuggling tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor. On 09 February 2009, after militants in Gaza fired at least two rockets into southern Israel, the tit-for-tat violence is further complicating prospects to draft a truce between Israel and the militant Islamic group Hamas.

By 2009 Egyptian security forces continue to improve counter-smuggling efforts along the Gaza border and further afield, through increasing their security presence in northern Sinai and giving greater focus to preventing weapons from entering the Sinai. Egyptian officials claim to have identified and sealed over 100 tunnels since the beginning of the year, with new discoveries occurring daily. The Egyptian General Intelligence Service (EGIS) requested U.S. assistance to purchase 16 X-ray screening systems to monitor vehicular traffic into the Sinai for weapons and explosives, and the US was exploring ways to provide the requested assistance. A decision by Tantawi to delay a FMF-funded counter smuggling project, however, threatened progress. In February 2009, Tantawi insisted that the Army Corps of Engineers sever the satellite link necessary to calibrate seismic-acoustic sensors being installed along the Egypt-Gaza border to detect tunneling activity. He also insisted that the ACE disable GPS technology needed to accurately pinpoint tunneling activity. This decision resulted in a four to five month delay to develop and implement a technical alternative.

The Egyptians began constructing a subterranean steel wall along the Egypt-Gaza border in early December 2009. The wall is a $40 million MOD project, which will be 19 meters deep and 12 mm thick. MOD has frequently discussed this project since the beginning of the year and expected to finish the project by December 2010. MOD officials have expressed confidence that the steel wall will be an effective anti-tunneling measure, although its actual effectiveness remains to be seen.

On 10 December 2009 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported the wall was being constructed in response to USG "pressure" on the Government of Egypt over smuggling. The initial Government of Egypt public reaction was via "unnamed security officials" to local media denying the existence of the underground wall. However, local criticism continued; Rafah Local City Council Member Soliman Awad claimed publicly 11 December 2009 the Government of Egypt was clearing trees for the purpose of installing monitoring equipment (apparently conflating the USG-funded BTADS tunnel monitoring project with the Government of Egypt steel wall). The following day, MFA Spokesman Hossam Zaki appeared on Al Mehwar, an Egyptian satellite television talk show. He took the position that the media was incorrect that a "wall was being built to separate Egypt from Gaza," and went on to say the Government of Egypt has the right to protect its borders.

Egyptian MB parliamentary bloc spokesman Hamdy Hassan publicly demanded on 15 December 2009 that parliamentary leadership obtain an explanation from the Government of Egypt on the wall; Hassan criticized the Government of Egypt for taking security steps that would "serve Israel" and for standing against "resistance groups" that are historically supported in the Arab world. He also criticized Government of Egypt installation of what he called "USAID funded high tech sensors" (apparently referring to the BTADS program). On 20 December 2009 high-profile Government of Egypt critic Hassan Nafaa wrote a scathing op-ed "Steel Walls for a Crumbling Regime," in which he compared the steel wall to Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution (which details restrictions on who can run for president); "a regime that has blocked off its own people might expectedly build a wall to block off others," he wrote. Prominent Egyptian Islamic scholar and Al Jazeera television personality Yousef Qaradawi issued a statement 28 December 2009 calling the wall a "crime" under Islamic law and called on Egypt's "friends" to pressure the Government of Egypt to stop the project.

Regionally, Hamas leader Khalid Mishal and Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah both took swipes at the Government of Egypt over the wall. On December 23 Mishal pointed out the Government of Egypt's initial denials as erroneous, and then criticized the wall as worsening the "Gaza siege." Nasrallah, meanwhile, called on the Government of Egypt to halt wall construction on 28 December 2009.

Members of various pro-Palestinian international organizations, including "Code Pink" (American) arrived in Cairo in late December (reftel a) for the purpose of a "Gaza freedom march" through the Sinai and into Gaza via Rafah crossing. A separate group, Viva Palestine and its "Lifeline 3 Convoy" which includes British MP George Galloway, reportedly has departed Aqaba, Jordan, en route to Latakia, Syria, to eventually arrive in the Sinai city of Al Arish. Egyptians themselves had for the most part not attempted to organize local demonstrations; the Egyptian Doctors' syndicate reportedly attempted to organize a demonstration and a march to Gaza, but these plans did not materialize.

Following media reports that the Government of Egypt had halted construction of the steel wall as a result of public criticism, FM Aboul Gheit said on 28 December 2009 that Egypt will not stop its "constructions" on the Gaza border, and the Government of Egypt will protect the Egyptian people and Egyptian national security. Referring to the above-ground wall, Aboul Gheit said the Government of Egypt had rebuilt the wall after Palestinians had destroyed it during the January 2008 border breach. As for the Gaza marchers, Aboul Gheit said that Egypt belongs to the Egyptian people and outsiders will not be allowed to "roam or enter" without permission. He said that Egypt has been attending to the needs of the Palestinian people for 50 years, "even before those (demonstrators) were born." Aboul Gheit also accused the Gaza freedom marchers of bad intentions against Egypt; "those who tried to conspire against us, and there are more than a thousand, we will leave them in the street." Nevertheless, the Government of Egypt compromised with the Gaza marchers on 30 December 2009, allowing 100 marchers (approx 40 Americans) to travel to Gaza via Rafah.

On January 9, 2010, the Islamic Shari'a Scholars Committee of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, issued a fatwa (religious ruling) condemning Egyptian construction of a steel wall near Rafah. The significance of the fatwa lies not in the decision itself -- the proposed wall is deeply unpopular with practically all segments of Jordanian society, both religious and secular -- but rather with its harsh tone and its apparent readiness to support or condone violence against the Egyptian authorities. The fatwa is highly unusual in its willingness to address issues completely outside of Jordan and because of the force with which the scholars condemn the actions of a neighboring Arab and Muslim state.

The ruling cites the negative impact upon food security, health programs, economic development, and Gaza reconstruction closely followed by condemnation of the proposed barrier for "harming the mujahidin" by preventing the shipment of weapons and military supplies. The fatwa text includes the following lines: "The peak of jihad is fighting: fight the occupying usurper and continue fighting him until he is expelled and the land is purified of his filth. God said 'And slay them wherever ye find them and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out'. ... The building of the wall is an obstruction of jihad. Aggression against the mujahidin and pursuing them is a crime that must be discontinued by the perpetrators. They must be confronted with all available means".

Later in the document, the scholars state, "It is even the right of the people of Gaza and its mujahidin everywhere to confront this crime and its perpetrators, stop them, and stop the damage they are inflicting." In several other places the fatwa draws upon the Koran and other Islamic texts to compare those constructing the wall with those whose transgressions placed outside the Islamic faith in classical texts. Other passages of the text present an exceptionally hostile view of both Christians and Jews, and cast the conflict in a stark religious, as opposed to national or political, context.

According to the military, over 1,660 illegal tunnels had been destroyed by August 2014 in Egypt’s intensified crackdown on the tunneling activity, vital for citizens of the besieged Gaza strip for the movement of both goods and people.

Security forces began evacuating the area bordering Sinai's Rafah on 28 October 2014, as one of the steps taken in response to a militant attack on security personnel in the Peninsula 24 October 2014 which left over 33 killed.

Egypt's cabinet issued on 29 October 2014 a decision to clear 500 metres of the border area with the Palestinian Gaza Strip of civilians, vowing to provide compensation for those evicted. The decision allows the forcible seizure of the property of those who refuse to comply. Egypt began razing houses and moving hundreds of families living along the Gaza border October 29, 2014, as part of sweeping efforts to stop what authorities say are "terrorist operations" originating in the Palestinian territory via tunnels.

The plan reportedly includes digging a channel or moat filled with sea water to stop further tunneling under the 9-mile border, according to Arab media. The evacuation followed a state of emergency declaration in northern Sinai prompted by an attack that killed more than 30 Egyptian soldiers. Authorities also announced a dawn-to-dusk curfew in the wake of the attack, the deadliest on Egyptian soldiers in years.

According to a surveillance of the area in question, there are 802 houses sheltering 1156 families which need to be evicted. They include 112 houses which had been affected by the tunnel-destruction operation the armed forces was conducting and 87 more which had already been removed for sheltering illegal tunnels. North Sinai's Governor Abdel Fattah Harhour told state-run news agency MENA on 30 October 2014 that 37 families who evacuated their houses have received financial compensation. He added that the government had allocated 500 million Egyptian pounds for financial compensation for those whose houses have been evicted.

The United States will continue to "support [Egypt's] efforts to take steps to defend their own borders," said the U.S. State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki. During the department's press briefing on 30 October 2014, Psaki addressed the buffer zone Egyptian authorities are creating on the country's eastern border in Sinai. "We believe that Egypt has the right to take steps to maintain their own security," Psaki said, adding that the U.S understands the threat Egypt is facing from Sinai. "We also continue to encourage them to take into account those that would be internally displaced by this, but they’re working through the plan and we’re continuing to support their efforts to take steps to defend their own borders."

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Page last modified: 17-02-2017 19:33:24 ZULU