Following the June Hamas coup, the Egyptian government (EG) took drastic measures against the smuggling operations on its Eastern border with Gaza. The EG ordered the demolition of some 3,000 to 5,000 homes on the border, some of which sheltered entrances to tunnels used for smuggling goods, ammunition, weapons, and people between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Indeed, after years of turning a blind eye to the problem, Egypt has decided to take action.
The EG may be motivated in part by scathing criticism from Egypt’s top aid patron, the United States, for allowing Hamas to smuggle enough weapons from Sinai to overtake Gaza. But Egypt may not need American prodding in the future. Cairo now recognizes that arms and terrorists can be smuggled both ways. Without a secure border, dangerous men and materiel can be smuggled into Egypt for the purpose of terrorizing or destabilizing the country.
The Northern Sinai Bedouins
The primary reason behind the EG’s decision to demolish homes on the Gaza border is its fear of the Northern Sinai Bedouins (NSB). Although Sinai Bedouins are Egyptians, they perceive themselves as a distinct ethnic minority. They are nomadic Arabs with roots in Arabia, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories, whereas most Egyptians hail from the Nile Valley and are predominantly of ancient Egyptian ancestry.
The relationship between the NSB and Egyptian authorities has been particularly tense since the triple Taba bombings of October 7, 2004, which killed 34 people, injured 171, and scared off Western tourists, Egypt’s economic lifeblood. Investigations revealed that the NSB were, at the very least, logistically involved in that attack, marking the first Bedouin involvement in a terrorist act against the Egyptian state. Security forces replied with repressive measures, arresting and detaining more than 2,000 NSB, including women and children. This was followed by the subsequent Sinai bombings that targeted tourists in the towns of Sharm el-Sheikh (2005) and Dahab (2006). The relationship between the NSB and the state can now be best described as a cycle of violence and repression.
Given this context, the NSB who are about to be forcibly removed from the Egypt-Gaza border are predictably irate. Demonstrations, rallies, media campaigns, and grassroots movements have been launched in open defiance of this decision. In one July demonstration, Egyptian security forces used tear gas and live ammunition that left one dead and about 20 injured. The Bedouins claimed that their demonstration was peaceful, while security forces insist they only shot ammunition into the air to disperse an illegal gathering.
The NSB feel economically disenfranchised, as well. While Southern Sinai Bedouins have benefited greatly from the burgeoning tourism industry, the Northern Sinai Peninsula has been neglected. Indeed, the area has seen little in the way of government-sponsored economic development.
Without many sources of legal income, some NSB have turned to other means, such as human trafficking, arms smuggling, cigarette smuggling, providing logistical assistance to terrorist organizations, and drug dealing. Typically, the NSB have provided these goods and services to Palestinians in Gaza via elaborate underground tunnels that stretch below the Philadelphi Corridor, which separates the Sinai Peninsula from Gaza. With Hamas now in control of Gaza, Egypt is increasingly concerned about the reverse flow of these illicit goods and services.
It must be noted that support to Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist groups has never been the primary incentive for NSB smugglers. Rather, in their view, it is a source of income. Tunnels, in particular, are a substantial source of money, not only for smugglers, but also for those who host entryways to the tunnels inside their homes.
Hosting these tunnels, however, does not come without its own financial and personal costs. Digging tunnels, which often stretch up to one-half mile, can cost tens of thousands of dollars. With increased Israeli security, complete with high-tech seismic sensors, smugglers have had to dig deeper and longer tunnels. This has made for increasingly difficult and hazardous conditions, including a lack of proper ventilation.
Egypt’s Tunnel Crackdown
Today, the EG is clamping down on the tunnels, despite the fact that this adds to the isolation of Gaza, and exacerbates the deteriorating humanitarian conditions there. For years, Israel alleged that Cairo was not doing enough to shut down the tunnels. Israeli officials even alleged that Egyptian soldiers were occasionally involved directly in the tunnel operations. In some cases, when tunnels were destroyed with explosives, Israelis claimed to have witnessed smoke and debris plume out of tunnel entrances near Egyptian military guard posts. The EG strongly denies these allegations.
Egypt is also tightening its grip on the Rafah border crossing. The Gaza city of Rafah is the unquestioned center of the tunneling activities, largely due to the proximity of houses on both sides of the border. Although Egypt opens the Rafah border occasionally, the government now favors using the Kerem Abu Salem border crossing (Keren Shalom in Hebrew), which is controlled by Israel. This allows Egypt to fully deflect any accusations that it is allowing terrorists or dangerous materiel from crossing the border in either direction.
Egypt’s tight control over the Rafah border also gives Cairo leverage vis-à-vis Hamas. Since the Israeli isolation of Gaza is nearly airtight, Egypt now has the power to break the isolation of Gaza in return for possible future concessions.
Fear of Refugees
In addition to some of the aforementioned security concerns, Egypt is now also worried about the Egypt-Gaza border because of its potential to produce an influx of refugees. After the Hamas coup, thousands of Palestinians, mostly members of the Fatah party, were stranded for weeks on Egyptian soil. These people fled Gaza for fear that Hamas might attack them because of their support for the losing side of the battle.
Now, as living conditions in Gaza deteriorate, including reports of sewage problems, baseless arrests and killings, a lack of medical staff, and other concerns, more Gazans may seek to flee Gaza and attempt to cross the border into Egypt. Authorities have already designated an area in the Northern Sinai town of al-Arish that could serve as a refugee camp. The potential arrival of refugees would make the Egyptian task of policing the borders and controlling Sinai even more complicated.
Border Policing Problems
There are other complicating factors, too. Egypt often maintains that the limitations stipulated in the 1979 Camp David Peace agreement with Israel makes it difficult to police the border. According to the agreement, Sinai is a demilitarized zone. Egypt recently negotiated the increase of troops to 750 along the Egypt-Gaza border. Though an improvement, Egypt considers this number to be insufficient to properly control the borders. Will Egypt and Israel restructure their peace agreement such that Egypt can augment its forces on the border? Might this raise Israeli concerns about an increased Egyptian force on the Israeli border?
Cairo must invest in legal sources of income for the inhabitants of Northern Sinai. Only then will the NSB be less tempted to engage in illegal activities for their livelihood. Until then, tunnels will likely remain the best source of income for the NSB, since they may be the only way for Gazans to circumvent the embargo imposed on the Gaza Strip after the Hamas takeover.
Halting these tunnel operations will earn Egypt the ire of an Arab world that is largely sympathetic to the plight of Gaza’s Palestinians. This will not stop Egypt from destroying these tunnels. Indeed, Egypt understands that controlling them gives Egypt considerable leverage over Hamas, an Iran-backed movement that can potentially destabilize Egypt.
Egypt can thus be counted on to improve border security, while working to mediate the inter-Palestinian conflict. In this role, it will likely find a way to keep Hamas in check by neither alienating nor supporting it. Egypt will do all of this, not because America seeks it, but because of its own national security interests.
Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.