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Opinion: Tunnels and Hostages | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Palestinian cleans a smuggling tunnel in the Gaza Strip, 19 February 2013 after Egyptian authorities pumped wastewater into the tunnels running under the border in a campaign to stop smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Source: EPA

Although the situation of the Egyptian conscripts abducted in Sinai might be solved in the next few hours or days in one way or another, we must think about the larger issue that caused the security crisis that has been escalating over the past few years in the peninsula.

According to reports, in the latest crisis Egyptian military personnel returning from a leave of absence were abducted by extremist groups that seem to be systematically trained in the use of weapons. These organized groups emerged as a result of the state of insecurity that has followed the January 25 revolution that ousted the former regime in Egypt.

This state of unrest is nothing new and goes back several years. Since the October War in 1973—through which Egypt managed to regain Sinai after seven years of military, economic and security preparations—it has become obvious that the authority in Cairo is struggling to maintain control over the peninsula. This has reached a stage where Egyptian personnel are targeted and appear blindfolded on tapes that are provocatively filmed by abductors in a style reminiscent of Al-Qaeda.

Obviously, there are reasons for the insecurity in Sinai, especially when it comes to the restrictions imposed by the 1979 Egypt–Israel peace treaty on the number of troops on the border between the two countries. This has created a security vacuum that smugglers and extremist groups have exploited, prompting several former Egyptian officials to demand negotiations with Israel to amend the peace treaty so as to maintain control over the border.

The main part of the problem comes from the tunnels dug along the Rafah–Gaza border, which reportedly number in the thousands. Due to the blockade imposed by Israel on the Gaza Strip after Hamas came to power, Gaza residents have relied heavily on the tunnels to smuggle commodities, weapons and all sorts of things that could not be obtained by overground trade.

With more tunnels being dug and the emergence of extremist jihadist groups, which the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hamas could not control during its rule, security continued to deteriorate in Sinai. This deterioration was demonstrated when tens of thousands of Palestinians, encouraged by Hamas, stormed Egypt’s border, causing more pressure on Cairo to open its borders. However, Egypt showed restraint by refraining from firing on the Palestinians.

It is hard to imagine that this enormous number of tunnels would possibly have been dug had Egypt not turned a blind eye to the Palestinian situation. Although Egypt’s leniency might have been meant to ensure the arrival of commodities to Palestinians by easing the blockade on Gaza, it violated Cairo’s sovereignty—namely its right to monitor and control individuals and commodities crossing its border.

Photos of the tunnels and the commodities smuggled have been circulated by international media outlets. Moreover, according to reports, the smuggling activities have turned into a kind of a profitable business that only flourishes during a crisis, with the Hamas government issuing licenses and collecting taxes from those running the tunnels.

The problem in Sinai appears to come from adopting short-term partial solutions, which, although temporarily effective, run the risk of creating more acute problems in the long term. Even if the current crisis is defused, who can guarantee these extremist groups will refrain from carrying out similar kidnappings and attacks in the future?

With these accidents being repeated—threatening to make Sinai a battleground in a war of attrition, especially after last year’s slaughter of soldiers—it is a mistake to ignore the need for radical and effective solutions that do not compromise Egypt’s sovereignty. It is the negligence formerly shown by the Egyptian government that led to the current state of insecurity.

The security solution might be necessary to confront the armed extremist groups; however, political, economic and social measures must be taken to eliminate the situation that encouraged these armed elements to grow. The Hamas government needs to cooperate with Egypt in controlling borders and be aware of the consequences of endangering Cairo’s interests. Now that the above-ground border crossings are open to individuals and commodities, tunnels are unnecessary.