Tunnel Vision beneath Gaza

12 01 2009

Asia Times
12 January 2009

No matter who is to blame for the recent escalation of violence in Gaza—no matter which side is morally righteous—it should be obvious to everyone that Hamas is now even less likely to abandon violent resistance any time soon.  Even if Operation Cast Lead will make Hamas think twice about attacking Israel in the future (doubtful), Hamas will still do whatever it takes to prepare for the day when it is ready.  And the 18-month blockade of Gaza—put in place by Egypt and Israel after Hamas’ localized coup—has only made Hamas more protective of its arsenal.

As a result, Jerusalem believes that the only way to protect Israelis is to secure the Philadelphi Corridor, the nine-mile border between Gaza and Egypt, beneath which lie an estimated 300 makeshift tunnels used by Hamas and entrepreneurial Palestinians to smuggle (among other things) foodstuffs, cigarettes, livestock, gasoline and (in the case of Hamas) enormous amounts of explosives, firearms, ammunition and well-trained teachers/students of militant resistance.  Without these tunnels, Israel insists, Hamas would not be able to stockpile and fire rockets and mortars against Israel with impunity.  And with talk of a ceasefire in the air, Jerusalem has made the permanent monitoring and destruction of these tunnels a key sticking point to ending its assault.

But what would that effort require, and would it actually make Israelis safer?

The ideas are neither new nor particularly promising, as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) explored and discarded most of them throughout the years it occupied Gaza.  One suggestion was to build a moat filled with seawater that would drown any smuggler who breached it, but the proposal was abandoned due to the threat of contaminating the aquifer beneath Gaza.  An underground wall was also considered, but unless it is made of titanium, Hamas would need only a chisel and a little patience.  Another idea was to destroy all the buildings within a kilometer of the border (houses frequently conceal entrances and exits to the tunnels), but this could smell an awful lot like ethnic cleansing, and without a heavy occupation, the houses could always be rebuilt.

Last year, the US Department of Defense allocated $23 million to train and equip Egyptian border guards to find and destroy the tunnels, but the effort has been widely described as a failure, despite the recent deployment of “a form of ground-penetrating radar,” rumored to be on loan from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Even with the help of technology, however, the provisions of the 1979 Camp David Treaty between Israel and Egypt places a tight cap on the number of Egyptian soldiers allowed near that border with Israel, and even if that were somehow bypassed, it is unclear how much Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could help.

After all, Cairo has been struggling with its own militant Islamist problem for decades; as the ideological birthplace of al-Qaeda and home to the spiritual forbears of Hamas, Egypt has spent years turning a blind eye to Palestinian weapons smuggling to ensure that Hamas continues to see Israel as their primary enemy, rather than Cairo.

On the other hand, Mubarak has had to balance this interest with a primal fear that Gaza’s jihadi hotbed might spill over into Egypt.  For this reason it has been particularly surprising these last few weeks to see Mubarak and his foreign ministry blame Hamas for the violence and subsequently refuse to allow healthy Gazans fleeing Israel’s air strikes to seek refuge in Egypt—a decision for which he has been excoriated in the Arab world.   Amidst the fallout, it is still unclear if Mubarak will resume his balancing act or if he will risk dismembering the vast networks of smugglers and corrupt officials in the Sinai Peninsula.

Given Cairo’s previous failings to curb smuggling, Israel has been insistent that whatever force patrols the border should be “international” and have a clear mandate to find and destroy these tunnels, and to capture any operatives caught in the act of smuggling.  But Egypt is weary of violations to its sovereignty, and deploying the force on the Gaza side of the border is a deal-breaker for Hamas.

Besides, as impractical as a moat or an underground wall may be, an international contingent of soldier-archeologists might be even worse, as any force tasked with destroying—not just “monitoring”—these tunnels will likely find themselves in Hamas’ crosshairs.  And what competent military would volunteer their services for such a task?

Well, it seems the IDF would.  With as much at stake as Israel claims to have, there is good reason to think Jerusalem already has something in mind for this border, though the Israelis have been coy on the matter so far.  More specifically, Israel’s primary ceasefire negotiator, Amos Gilad, rejected the prospect of an international force because it would be “devoid of intelligence, devoid of an ability to penetrate those doing all of this smuggling, devoid of an operational capability.”  In nearly the same breath over the weekend, Gilad also rejected the prospect of an Egyptian force because “the Egyptians are great at making efforts, but not at achieving results.”

Granted, this could be a negotiating tactic to secure as good an outcome as possible for Jerusalem, especially given that both of these statements are accurate.  But precisely because they are accurate, Israel is unlikely to entrust border control to international or Egyptian forces.  To that end, one idea making the rounds in hawkish Israeli circles is to make all Gazan territory within three kilometers of the Corridor a “closed military zone” and to ask Cairo to do the same on their side of the border—forcing any future tunnel to be at least six times longer than today’s average length of one kilometer.

This would require not only destroying all the buildings in a given area, but also a massive population transfer in one of the most densely populated places on earth.  The southern city of Rafah alone, with a population exceeding 150,000, would fall in a zone that extended only one kilometer into the Strip.

Though extreme, from the IDF’s perspective, without widening the Corridor in this way, reoccupying only the Gaza-Egypt border—and not the entire Strip—would make the IDF contingent along the border more vulnerable to attack from Hamas and other militants.  Already obsessed with Israel’s lack of “strategic depth,” Jerusalem would need to ensure that its new formation, protruding like a twig out of southern Israel, could be reinforced quickly and thus able to withstand a sustained rocket/mortar assault from both directions.

But whoever or whatever patrols the border, indulging Israel’s tunnel vision will not keep weapons out of Gaza, no matter the success of any anti-tunneling campaign.  Because an end to the blockade will be integral to any ceasefire, Hamas will merely return to the days when it smuggled weapons from Egypt and even Israel itself through legitimate border crossings into Gaza.  Both then and now, nearly all of Hamas’ rocket propellants and explosives are homemade from vast quantities of sugar and potassium nitrate, which can be disguised as just about anything.  Likewise, with the right instruction, even the military-grade rockets (donated by Iran) that Hamas smuggles into Gaza can be broken down into smaller pieces, packaged as “humanitarian equipment,” and then reassembled on the other side.

In the end, if Hamas wants to acquire weapons, it will acquire them.  And if Israel wants to stop the attacks on its country, it has to concede that in the long term, only a brutal re-occupation of all of Gaza or a negotiated final settlement could ever make it stop.  Everything else is politics.

[View this article at the Asia Times]

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact Asia Times about sales, syndication and republishing)



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