By Jonathan Schanzer
A half-dozen U.S. military officers and engineers recently toured Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Maan News Agency reported.
They reportedly are working to install high-tech sensing equipment to locate the smuggling tunnels that snake beneath the sands between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Maan notes that the group is already training Egyptian security personnel to use the equipment.
The need for this equipment is dire. Dozens of Gaza Strip smugglers went back to work last week, openly repairing the tunnels that supply the Hamas economy, as Israel withdrew its troops.
With their help and determination, Hamas will quickly replenish the rockets and launchers destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces in Operation Cast Lead.
Egypt says it will accept equipment or aid from any nation to help combat smuggling. But, with or without help, Egypt must begin to actively identify and destroy these tunnels. If it won’t, Washington should consider revoking Egypt’s $1.7 billion in foreign aid.
Israel has complained with increasing intensity that Egypt turns a blind eye to the tunnels. Cairo originally dismissed those allegations as “old and silly.”
However, as Israeli protests grew louder, the U.S. House and Senate agreed to a 2008 foreign aid bill that would withhold about $100 million of Egypt’s foreign aid unless Washington could certify that Egypt was doing its part to stop the smuggling.
Egypt, however, still failed to deliver. In late January 2008, the Hosni Mubarak regime stood by as Hamas destroyed parts of the wall separating Gaza from the Sinai.
Tens of thousands of Gazans streamed into Egypt, stocking up on food, supplies and weapons. According to Israeli security services chief Yuval Diskin, large quantities of long-range rockets, anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and materiel for rocket production were brought into Gaza.
Predictably, the Israeli government was furious. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel stated in a BBC interview that it was “the responsibility of Egypt to ensure that the border operates properly, according to the signed agreements.”
However, it took Egypt 12 days to close the border. Once sealed, underground smuggling returned to previous levels.
One year later, despite regular diplomatic overtures from Jerusalem and Washington, the smuggling continues. The continued operation of these tunnels has wide-reaching consequences.
The tunnels are the lifeblood of the Gaza economy, enabling Hamas to circumvent international sanctions. Tunnels furnish the Hamas economy in the Gaza Strip with everything from cigarettes and car parts to erectile dysfunction pills and fresh cheese. Hamas also smuggles in Iranian cash to pay the salaries of its loyalists.
Additionally, Hamas collects revenue from the tunnels, which yield approximately $140 million per year. In some cases, Hamas charges the operators thousands of dollars to maintain them.
In short, without the tunnels, the Hamas economy would likely collapse. The power structure would quickly follow.
Notably, Egypt’s refusal to shut down the tunnels directly contributes to the bloody internecine conflict between Hamas and Fatah — the two dominant Palestinian factions. The more weaponry and goods Hamas smuggles into Gaza, the stronger it will get and the more prepared it will be to confront Fatah in another round of violence. This will only ensure future instability in the West Bank and Gaza.
Finally, and most obviously, the Sinai tunnels provide Hamas with the projectiles and ordnance that provoked Israel into the most recent conflict. This led to a re-inflammation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to mention needless bloodshed on both sides. The resumption of tunnel activity now ensures that a future round of conflict is just around the corner.
Until now, Israeli efforts to get Egypt to take stronger action against the tunneling had potentially dangerous consequences. Specifically, Israel feared jeopardizing its cold peace with Egypt, which had ensured a tense regional calm since 1978.
However, it is now clear that Egypt has failed to live up to its obligations. The need for additional U.S. personnel to bolster Cairo’s flaccid anti-smuggling efforts is proof of this.
As calls for change and accountability reverberate throughout Washington at a time when budgets are under increased scrutiny, the U.S. Congress should take a hard look at Egypt’s $1.7 billion in foreign aid.
More than $1.3 billion of that is military aid. Those funds must be used to better patrol the Gaza border. If they are not, U.S. foreign aid should be reconsidered.
Schanzer is a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury Department.