This time in Sinai, the Egyptians mean business

11 battalions are fighting armed groups in the peninsula, and systematically closing the smuggling tunnels. That could trigger economic crisis in Gaza, and rocket fire at Israel

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 19, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, February 19, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Egyptian security forces early Tuesday morning discovered and sealed another eight smuggling tunnels running from the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza Strip. According to Palestinian media reports, the Egyptians also located 23 warehouses used for storing fuel and thwarted the imminent transfer of the fuel to the Hamas-run territory. These warehouses contained 140,000 liters of fuel, a rare commodity of late in the Strip.

Recent years have seen numerous ostensibly dramatic reports concerning Egyptian discoveries of smuggling tunnels, interceptions of arms caches, and general campaigns by Cairo against terrorist groups. But Tuesday’s incidents appeared to be part of a more serious effort by Cairo in the peninsula than anything since the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.

According to one Israeli official, Jerusalem recognizes that this latest Egyptian operation is not designed with Egyptian relations with Washington in mind, but as “an effective action against terror cells” in the Sinai.

To that end, Israel on Monday granted Cairo permission for two more infantry battalions to join the nine already operating in the lawless peninsula and along the border with Israel and Gaza. A tank battalion and Apache helicopters are also operating in the region.

The Egyptian military’s new campaign aims to break the back of Islamist terrorist groups in the peninsula once and for all. Unlike previous actions, the army is combating Islamist groups in the center and northwest Sinai in an effort to cripple their strongholds in Jebel Halal — the Tora Bora of Sinai. It has also cracked down on militant operations in the Rafah-el Arish border area in an attempt to clear the Philadelphia Corridor, a small strip 14 kilometers (8.6 miles) wide between Egyptian and Palestinian Rafah — the heartland of the smuggling-tunnel industry.

Until three weeks ago, over 200 tunnels critical to the Gazan economy — and to the cash flow of the Hamas government, to the tune of tens of millions of shekels per month — operated beneath the Egypt-Gaza border. Since then, the smuggling industry has stopped almost completely because of the Egyptian crackdown. Tunnel activity has dropped by over 90 percent, The Times of Israel was told.

Egypt’s unprecedented action against the tunnels not only threatens the lifeline for Gaza’s Palestinians, but also for Sinai’s armed militias and Bedouins. The tunnels were an essential source of income and a source of cooperation. With the destruction of the tunnels, the Egyptian military has uprooted the economic supply line for Sinai’s Islamist terror organizations.

It remains unclear, however, how long the Egyptian military can continue to invest energy and manpower in Sinai, especially given the instability in Cairo. Clashes between supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi and security forces in the capital early Tuesday morning alone left at least seven dead and 250 injured.

But should smuggling operations halt entirely, the livelihood of tens of thousands of Sinai and Gaza residents will be at risk. A shortage of basic goods in Gaza will be felt immediately. If a suitable (and cost-effective) substitute for the tunnel trade is not found — such as Egypt opening the Rafah crossing to commercial goods — unrest in Gaza will inevitably follow.

And from there to the resumption of rocket fire at Israel is but a small step.

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