January 27, 2009
Rafah tunnels are the key to defeating Hamas
By Moshe Dann

Israeli military action in the Gaza Strip prompts two basic questions? How did Israel get into this mess? And how can Israel get out?

In focus now, finally, are the estimated hundreds of tunnels under the town of Rafah used to smuggle everything from sophisticated weapons, to drugs, prostitutes, food and gasoline. Allowing this little town and UNRWA-sponsored jihadist camps to operate as weapons suppliers and shelters for terrorist organizations has cost the lives hundreds, maimed thousands and jeopardized the entire region.

Rafah, a 4 km long Arab town that straddles the Egyptian-Gaza border, is the key to preventing Hamas from obtaining weapons and ending the conflict. Without the supply of ammunition and weapons, Hamas could not sustain a military confrontation, or fire rockets into Israeli cities. Why, then, has Israel, until recently allowed the tunnels to exist, why haven't they been destroyed completely, and when will it end?


In the wake of the Israeli-Arab war in 1948-9, Egypt created and occupied what came to be known as, "the Gaza Strip." Rafah was split along the international border established in 1906 between the Egypt and what was then called Palestine, dividing the town in two.

After conquering Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, Israelis built settlements in both areas; those in Sinai were destroyed when Israel returned the area to Egypt as part of peace agreements in 1979-80. Egypt, however, refused to accept responsibility for the Gaza Strip, or change the configuration of Rafah, leaving Israel holding this problematic bag.

The remaining 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, with government backing, provided a strategic method for controlling the strip, and became an economic powerhouse, providing jobs and stability to local Arabs.

In the late 1980's, when the Arab "uprising" (intifada) against Israel began, terrorists in Gaza needed more weapons. Since Israel controlled the above-ground routes, tunnels were dug beneath the Egyptian border, their entrances hidden beneath buildings. Egypt did not restrict tunnel-building and smuggling; Israel was limited in its ability to detect the tunnels, reluctant to interfere with the clans that controlled the tunnel operation, since they provided money to PA officials and the local population.

Following the Oslo Accords (1994), Israel turned over control of Jericho and Gaza City to the PA as the first stage of a proposed withdrawal from all Arab-populated areas in the entire West Bank (Yehuda and Shomron), which was intended to comprise a Palestinian state.

From time to time, under Israeli control, the IDF tried to deal with the tunnel problem. Several solutions were proposed:

Israel could have unilaterally turned its part of Rafah to Egypt, placing the entire town under Egyptian control. Proposed by then PM Menachem Begin to President Sadat, it was rejected by Egypt.
A water-filled trench along the Egyptian-Gazan border (about 15 kms) through Rafah was rejected by Israeli "experts." This has not been explained publicly.
Removing Arab homes on the Israeli/Palestinian side, relocating its residents and arresting the clans that run the tunnels was also rejected.

According to an informed source, when Israel decided to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, in the summer of 2005, Gen. Amos Gilad was sent to negotiate with the Egyptians. He focused narrowly, according to the source, only on the number and deployment of Egyptian troops that would be placed on the border ostensibly to prevent smuggling, rather than structural changes, such as widening the corridor to make it more difficult to build the tunnels and relocating the population of Rafah.

Negotiations with Egypt, however, ended abruptly when then Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz announced Israel's decision to leave the Gaza Strip and the Philadelphia Corridor unilaterally, without pre-conditions. The reason for this fatal mistake has never been explained. Even those who supported withdrawal questioned the rush. Was it because of American/EU pressure? Israeli incompetence? Corruption?

A recent interview in Haaretz with head of MI suggests that reports were submitted to fit political, rather than security considerations.

The tunnels are big business, costing $100,000 to build -- the investment is recovered in a few weeks, or less. Directly supported and financed by the PA according to documents found by the IDF, the tunnels are controlled by criminal gangs with close ties to the PA, and provide a major source of illegal funding to PA officials and local residents.

In order to support the PA, the Israeli government often ignored the tunnel business, except for limited IDF action in 2004, which was a prelude to PM Sharon's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2006 ("disengagement").

In May, 2007, Israeli Comptroller reported that the IDF failed to procure and develop technology to locate and destroy the tunnels. Only at the end of 2004, when terrorists mounted deadly attacks against IDF positions in the Gaza Strip was the issue taken seriously.

Although warned by military and security experts not to abandon the critical border area with Egypt, Sharon ignored the advice.

According to Israeli military sources, nearly all the tunnels are located in Rafah. A look at the map explains why: Rafah is the only town on the southern border, and therefore is the only place that can provide cover for the tunnels which stretch only a few hundred meters between the Egyptian and Gazan sides of the town.

The tunnels cannot extend beyond Rafah because the distance to the nearest town, Khan Yunis, is too far and the area is uninhabited. Without Rafah's cover, therefore, tunnel smuggling will end. And without the ability to resupply its weaponry, Hamas will either be forced to focus on economic and social betterment, or implode.

The problem of these tunnels can be resolved simply, cheaply, quickly and without violence: Egypt can remove the homes and build a security perimeter on its side of Rafah. A "closed military zone," with an entrance carefully watched would end tunnel smuggling.

Egypt has been playing a deadly cynical game -- allowing weapons to reach Hamas at Israel's expense. It's now up to Egypt to act responsibly.

Also see: The inside story of Operation Cast Lead

Moshe Dann has been an assistant professor of History at CUNY) and currently lives in Jerusalem.