The Egyptian army is choking Gaza's lifeline, its tunnels

The Egyptian army is choking Gaza's lifeline, its tunnels
Feature: Once more or less tolerated by the Egyptian authorities, they are now cracking down like never before and shutting down the tunnels that have for long years been Gaza's lifeline.
4 min read
21 February, 2015
A Palestinian working in a smuggling tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border [Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty]
The Egyptian army's campaign in Sinai appears to have two main objectives: defeating the armed groups in Sinai, and demolishing all of the tunnels between the Gaza strip and Egypt. It may or may nor succeed in its first objective, but it is unquestionably succeeding in its second, suffocating the strip in the process.

Palestinians were inspired to build tunnels by the Viet Cong, during the struggle to liberate Vietnam from American military presence. The first Palestinian tunnels were built to help Rafah families on the Palestinian side to visit their relatives on the Egyptian side, and close-knit family relations helped avoid the tunnels' detection.

Israel discovered the first Palestinian tunnel in 1983, four years after the Camp David agreement with Egypt. Many observers believe the Camp David agreement resulted in Egypt being effectively neutralised with regard to the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. The agreement allowed Israel to focus on its other borders, after it had guaranteed the security of its critical southern border with Egypt, the most populous Arab country and the biggest potential military threat it faced.

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Israel utilised the Camp David agreement to further assert its control over the Gaza Strip by limiting commerce between Gaza and Egypt.

Israel also utilised the Camp David agreement to further assert its control over the Gaza Strip by limiting commerce between Gaza and Egypt and controlling the Palestinian-Egyptian border. The real siege of Gaza began after the Camp David agreement, which pushed Palestinians to build these rudimentary tunnels, initially used to smuggle cigarettes and gold.

However with the start of the second Intifada in 2000, the tunnels started taking on a different role, as they were now used to smuggle weapons to the resistance groups. The tunnels increase and became more sophisticated, and despite Israel attempt to find and destroy them, they continued to operate and multiply.


The Palestinian-Egyptian border is 13 kilometres long from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to Karm Abu Salem in the east. Tunnels are spread through eight kilometres of this border area, from Tal Zarab in the west to al-Jaradat east of the Rafah border crossing. This area has clay rich soil, which makes it ideal for the building of tunnels that usually cross from the Palestinian side of the border into the Egyptian city of Rafah.

With the start of the Israeli siege on Gaza in 2009, tunnels started growing in large numbers and were used to smuggle various food products and petroleum products in addition to weapons for the resistance groups, which eased the harsh siege in the Strip.

The former head of the Egyptian intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, was considered to be the architect of the Gaza tunnels, as Egyptian intelligence was fully aware of the tunnels and even helped develop them, in the interests of the former Egyptian regime.

The former regime supported tunnel building due to its fears of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, in addition to their political interests, like disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank and putting pressure on Israel and the US to achieve political and economic gains when Egypt was facing widespread discontent against Hosni Mubarak's plan for his son to succeed him. Egyptian intelligence even imported heavy digging equipment to help develop the tunnels.

With the growth of the tunnels and the increase in smuggling under the border, the area became a commercial area worth an estimated three billion dollars a year, however the commerce was controlled by a handful of people connected to high level Egyptian officials that were driven by financial profit. The smuggling operations also revived the economy in Rafah and decreased the number of unemployed youth, however only a handful of Rafah families controlled the smuggling business, the rest of the population used it as a means to supplement their very low incomes.

The former regime supported tunnel building due to its fears of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and to further their political interests.

Egyptian intelligence also encouraged Jihadist groups in Sinai to smuggle weapons into Gaza, however it would also coordinate with other security agencies to intercept weapon smuggling to appear to be tough on cross-border smuggling.

There were approximately 1200 tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt. However the Egyptian army has destroyed an estimated 950 of those tunnels, suffocating of the last lifeline available to the residents of Gaza. In 2010, the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak proposed a steel separation wall between Gaza and Sinai, after Palestinians resistance factions had proven to be unexpectedly successful at smuggling advanced weaponry into the strip.

There are tunnels specifically designed to smuggle food products and other commercial products as well as fuel, while others are specifically designed and built to smuggle weapons for the resistance groups. Regardless of Egypt's official policy towards tunnels, a number of Egyptian officials have been involved in the building and protection of tunnels in return for large bribes or a share of the profits made by smugglers. Tunnel operators who do not cooperate with these officials were usually arrested for smuggling.