February 20, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 936

To Hamas's Chagrin, Egypt Increases Anti-Tunnel Activity On Gaza Border

February 20, 2013 | By C. Jacob, H. Varulkar, and L. Lavi*
Palestinians, Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 936


In recent days, the Egyptian military has increased its activity against tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, and has begun flooding them with sewage.[1] According to one tunnel owner, Egypt is focusing this activity on areas with numerous tunnels, causing a significant decrease in smuggling.[2] Sources in Hamas claimed that the Egyptian military had increased its forces along its border with Gaza, and had dug artesian wells there to flood the tunnels.[3]

This activity by the Egyptian army was criticized by the Hamas regime in Gaza, which claimed it was a renewal of Egypt's siege on Gaza. However, this criticism does not appear to be stopping Egypt – and Egyptian presidential aide for foreign affairs 'Issam Al-Haddad even spoke out on this subject recently, saying that Egypt would prevent the ongoing smuggling of weapons and people through the tunnels, which damage Egypt's security.[4]

Alongside these events, Egyptian media reported that during the past week, two Israeli security delegations had visited the country, and that an Egyptian security delegation had visited Israel on February 18 to discuss, among other things, weapons smuggling from Egypt to Gaza.[5]

It should be mentioned that this is not the first time that Egypt's anti-tunnel operations have soured the country's relations with the Hamas regime. In August 2012, Egypt-Hamas relations hit a snag following the terrorist attack in Rafah in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed; it was claimed in Egypt that some of the perpetrators had come via the tunnels, and even that Hamas was responsible for the attack. Following the Rafah attack, Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi launched a military campaign to eliminate terrorist cells in northern Sinai, during which the military acted to destroy several tunnels on the border.[6]

Egyptian Officials: We Are Determined To End Weapons Smuggling Via The Tunnels

Asked recently why Egypt is flooding the tunnels, Egyptian presidential aide for foreign affairs 'Issam Al-Haddad said that his country would not tolerate weapons smuggling to and from the Gaza Strip, because "this would lead to a destabilization of the Sinai," adding, "We do not want to see these tunnels used for smuggling... either people or weapons that could cause real damage to Egypt's security." He also said that the day-to-day cooperation with Israel continues as usual, and that President Mursi is honoring the Egypt-Israel peace agreement.[7]

A former Egyptian officer who served in the Sinai told the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that Egypt is determined to eliminate the tunnels, adding that they are now used for trade between individuals and do nothing to ease the Gazans' suffering – especially, he added, when there is regular activity at the border crossings. The former North Sinai governor, who is also a former Egyptian Army officer, explained that flooding the tunnels is not a new tactic, but an additional way of destroying the tunnels where demolition could damage nearby homes.[8]

Egyptian Columnist: There Is No Justification For The Tunnels' Existence

The Egyptian press also criticized Hamas's use of tunnels. Dr. 'Amr 'Abd Al-Sami', a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "Some 10 days ago, it was reported that Egypt has been flooding some [Hamas] tunnels [on the Gaza border] with water from one of the wells. My attention was drawn to Hamas's furious reaction to this – as though Egypt had no right to close these tunnels, which lead to its own territory. What astonished me about Hamas's behavior is that this organization acted as if it were entitled [to use the tactic of tunnels], or as if these tunnels (some 1,300 tunnels, dozens of which were sealed by Egypt in recent months) are a fact of nature that must be accepted."

'Abd Al-Sami' noted that in light of reports that a terrorist cell from the Gaza Strip that came through the tunnels had been involved in the August 12 attack on Egyptian soldiers in Rafah, fear had arisen "regarding the threat to Egypt's security posed by these tunnels." He said that there were also reports that "the tunnels are run (as companies) by some Hamas leaders in order to specifically smuggle goods stolen from the Egyptian market... The problem is that Hamas is not acting like a state the matter of the tunnels – but as an armed movement, which justifies its violations of the law with excuses – for example, that the tunnels are the only way to break Israel's siege on Gaza... – while the security concerns of neighboring countries such as Egypt carry little weight with Hamas...

He concluded: "We must not consider these tunnels as a fact of nature forced on us by this movement. As long as it uses them for purposes that threaten Egypt's sovereignty and security, and as long as the [Rafah] crossing is open aboveground, there is no justification or reason for tunnels to exist underground."[9]

Tunnel on the Egyptian border[10]

Hamas: Egypt's Actions Constitute A Renewal Of The Siege

As stated, Hamas members criticized Egypt's flooding of the tunnels with sewage. Hamas Interior Ministry spokesman Islam Shahwan said, "An Egyptian security operation has been underway for the past 10 days to close all the tunnels on the Gaza-Egypt border... by flooding them with sewage," and added that Egypt had not informed Hamas of its intentions. He said that this activity endangers the Gaza Strip, because its residents rely on Egypt for many of their needs, and that Hamas has been unsuccessful in its attempts to contact the Egyptians on this matter.[11]

Another Hamas official, Khalil Al-Hayya, said that Egypt's anti-tunnel activity was "a renewal of the siege," and called on Egypt to open the Rafah crossing and to force Israel to completely lift the "siege."[12] He also said, "The tunnels are the Palestinians' only option in dealing with the siege."[13]

It should be mentioned that Hamas spokesmen have for some time been claiming that the Hamas government does not object to the sealing of the tunnels, but merely demands that this be done only after the Rafah crossing is opened.

Columnist: We Must Not Please Israel And The West At The Expense Of The Passage Of People And Goods

Amjad 'Arar, a columnist for the independent Palestinians news agency Sama News, criticized the Mursi regime's anti-tunnel activity, saying that even Mubarak-era foreign minister Ahmed Abu Al-Gheit, "who had claimed that Palestinians who attempted to breach the border should have their legs broken, had acknowledged the network of tunnels between Egypt and Gaza as a vital lifeline in dealing with the siege." Accusing the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt – Hamas's ally – of destroying more tunnels since August 2012 than the Mubarak regime ever did, he also criticized Hamas's restrained response, saying that "even if it is understandable, it is not justifiable." He concluded by saying, "It is indeed every country's right to secure its borders and border crossings, but the passage of goods between Gaza and Egypt cannot be dependent upon on pleasing Israel and the West."[14]

This is not the first time that there has been criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood regime's anti-tunnel activity. In October 2012, following the closure of several tunnels, Islamic columnist Fahmi Huwaidi published an article criticizing the anti-tunnel operations, but explained that it was a direct result of U.S. and Israeli pressure. In an article in the Egyptian daily Al-Shorouq, he wrote: "Why did Egypt decide to demolish tunnels connecting Gaza to the Sinai, in a surprising move that was never [even] undertaken by the Mubarak regime? ... This does not settle with [the fact that today we have] a president with a Muslim Brotherhood background, whom many thought would treat the Palestinians more fairly and would show more understanding of the besieged Gazans' needs. People expected the Egyptian president [Mursi] to act to open the Rafah crossing to ease the suffering of those under siege in Gaza; they never even considered the possibility that his government would tighten the siege on the Strip, thus increasing their misery...

"I understand that some Palestinian officials in the Gaza Strip had higher expectations after Dr. Muhammad Mursi won the presidential [election], and that they failed to pay enough attention to the sensitivities and complexities of Egypt's position vis-à-vis the Palestinian matter in light of the peace agreement [with Israel], and to the commitments made by Egyptian presidents Sadat and Mubarak to the Americans and Israelis. [These officials] must temper their expectations, at least until further notice..."[15]

*H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; L. Lavi and C. Jabob are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1 Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), February 14, 2013.

[2] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 18, 2013.

[3] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London) February 14, 2013.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 18, 2013.

[5], February 19, 2013; Al-Shorouq (Egypt), February 15, 2013; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 17, 2013; Al-Khaleej (UAE), February 20, 2013.

[7] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 18, 2013.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 16, 2013.

[9] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 20, 2013.

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (Egypt), February 18, 2013.

[11], February 17, 2013.

[12], February 17, 2013.

[13] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (Palestinian Authority), February 17, 2013.

[14], February 16, 2013.

[15] Al-Shorouq (Egypt), October 7, 2012.

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