Monday, June 24, 2024

Egypt has destroyed over 2,000 Gaza tunnels: Report

Secret military documents obtained by Middle East Eye revealed the scale of Egyptian operations to destroy tunnels between the Sinai peninsula and the Gaza Strip built to circumvent the Israel-imposed blockade of the enclave.

According to the documents that MEE is publishing in full, more than 2,000 tunnels were destroyed by military engineers in the border city of Rafah between 2011 and 2015.

They also reveal that senior members of the armed forces ordered a feasibility study into a proposal to dig a canal along the entire border with Gaza as an alternative to destroying the tunnels.

The documents, leaked by an army insider, offer a rare insight into the military’s extensive operations in the North Sinai governorate.

The government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is highly secretive about its activities in Rafah and has imposed a media blackout in the region since 2013 where it has waged a brutal and destructive operation against local militants aligned with the Islamic State (IS) group.

It has never released official details about the destruction of tunnels.

According to the documents, all the tunnels destroyed during the period they covered were designated as commercial or transport tunnels.

The revelations come to light following the closure of the Rafah crossing in southern Gaza after an Israeli operation on 7 May and raise questions about Israeli criticism of Egypt’s alleged failure to eliminate smuggling tunnels used by Palestinian armed groups.

Israeli officials have claimed weapons used in Hamas’s attack in southern Israel on 7 October were smuggled into Gaza via tunnels from Egypt.

In December, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces would seek to gain control of the entire 14km border strip, known as the Philadelphi Corridor, to ensure the demilitarisation of the area.

Egypt has denied Israeli allegations, saying it has wiped out more than 1,500 tunnels over the past decade.

Diaa Rashwan, a government spokesperson, stated Egypt had also built a concrete wall along the entire border, six metres overground and six metres underground, which he said made it “impossible to smuggle weapons”.

Egyptian army spokesmen have previously put the number of tunnels destroyed at about 3,000. In 2018, a military spokesperson noted some of the tunnels destroyed reached a depth of 30 metres underground.

For the first time, however, the documents obtained by MEE reveal specific details about Egyptian operations to destroy the tunnels.

A document dated 5 February 2015, signed by Lieutenant-Colonel Ahmed Fawzy Abdelaziz, puts the number of tunnels destroyed between August 2011 and February 2015 at 2,121.

These included 813 that were flooded; 1,181 that were destroyed using engineering tools; and 127 that were collapsed with explosives.

The documents also include communications regarding a proposed idea to construct a canal that would serve as a buffer zone to block the creation of tunnels and loosen up the soil around them.

The proposal was overseen by Mohamed Farid Hegazi, then secretary general of the defence ministry.

The canal proposal was highly secretive and there is no evidence it was successfully implemented.

In 2015, when the idea was under consideration, bulldozers were seen digging along parts of the border in a leaked video of what was reported to be a project to build a canal to flood the tunnels with seawater.

This prompted condemnation by Palestinian officials including Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh. Sobhy Radwan, then Rafah’s mayor in Gaza, warned that the canal would cause landslides and a collapse of Gaza’s infrastructure.

The documents show that Hegazi in December 2014 commissioned the Water Authority of the armed forces to conduct studies in collaboration with the Technical Military College to test the soil along the border and determine the feasibility of a canal.

The water authority and the military college conducted 40 probes to measure the depth of soil layers and determine moisture levels.

The study concluded that the soil along the path of the proposed canal was highly impermeable to water and that “soil saturation will not occur until a period of up to several years”.

Commenting on the findings, Hegazi stated in a letter dated 17 January 2015 that the army chief of staff and defence minister ordered the engineering authority and the military college to “conduct a study for specific alternatives to deal with the tunnels west of the eastern borders at depths of more than 20 metres”.

Hegazi also included experts from the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics (NRIAG), who recommended a scientific method for locating tunnels deeper than 20 metres.

The documents reveal a marked increase in efforts to locate and destroy tunnels after Sisi came to power in July 2013 when the then-defence minister staged a coup against his democratically elected predecessor, Mohamed Morsi.

One document dated 2 May 2013 reported that the total number of tunnels destroyed by flooding to that date was 124 out of a total of 276 tunnels discovered, indicating that more tunnels were discovered in the period after 2013.

Egyptian forces have almost completely razed the city of Rafah in North Sinai over the past decade to create a five-kilometre buffer zone during its war against local insurgents affiliated with IS.

Between July 2013 and August 2015, Human Rights Watch documented the army’s destruction of 3,255 civilian buildings in Rafah, including homes and community buildings.

The campaign has displaced thousands of Bedouin residents and eliminated around 685 hectares of farmland.

Egypt announced it aimed to destroy cross-border tunnels that used civilian structures as their overground points of entry and exit.

At the time, officials said they sought to defend Egypt against “terrorism”. HRW, however, said the campaign was indiscriminate and violated international humanitarian law.

Prior to Sisi, the governments of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi had also taken action to deal with some cross-border tunnels.

An Egyptian court in February 2013 ordered Morsi’s government to take all measures necessary to destroy smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, estimated at the time to number about 1,200.

Essam El-Haddad, Morsi’s national security adviser, told Reuters that month that a number of tunnels had been flooded earlier in February to prevent the two-way flow of arms between Gaza and Sinai.

El-Haddad explained that the government had eased restrictions imposed by previous governments on the movement of people and goods via the Rafah crossing, and therefore the tunnels were no longer as necessary as they had been.

“Now we can say that the borders are open to a good extent – it could still be improved – and the needs of the Gazan people are allowed in,” Haddad added.

At the time, several media outlets including the New York Times and Al Jazeera reported that the Egyptian army had flooded the tunnels with sewage water.

A senior Morsi aide told MEE on condition of anonymity: “President Morsi aimed to strike a balance between multiple competing interests. He understood that tunnels posed a threat to the national security of Egypt. But conversely, he refused to be complicit in the starvation and blockade of Palestinians.”

Mubarak’s government, after Hamas gained control of Gaza in 2007, contributed to the Gaza blockade by severely restricting movement via the Rafah crossing. It also destroyed “thousands of tunnels”, according to Mubarak’s testimony before a court in 2019.

However, Mubarak also rejected a security agreement between the US and Israel in 2009 to stop the smuggling of weapons to Gaza.

In a 2009 speech, he suggested the tunnels were primarily commercial and that they were an inevitable result of Israel’s siege policy.

Mubarak told the court during his 2019 trial that tunnels had existed before his rule, which started in 1981, and that his government had destroyed tunnels in the years before the 2011 revolution that toppled him. He described tunnels with one opening but up to 30 sub-tunnels, with entry and exit points in homes and farms. He said the tunnels were constructed without the knowledge of the authorities.

“We destroyed thousands of tunnels,” he said, adding that he had asked the defence ministry for “a radical solution” to the tunnels.

“We agreed with the Ministry of Defence to carry out a certain measure to get rid of the tunnels.”

He refused to elaborate on the methods agreed, which he said were classified information.

He stated any operation to shut or destroy tunnels was very risky, and often attacked by gunmen from Gaza.

Israel has blockaded Gaza by land, air and sea since Hamas gained control of the enclave in 2007.

The siege has turned the Palestinian enclave into what some call an “open-air prison”.

Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group B’tselem have denounced Egypt as a partner in Israel’s siege policy.

The Rafah crossing was the only entry point to Gaza not directly controlled by Israel between September 2005 and 7 May 2024. It had been jointly controlled by Egypt and Hamas since 2007.

Egypt closed the terminal for 333 days in 2015 and 207 days in 2014.

Under Morsi, access to Gaza had become easier, with the crossing open for 311 days in 2012, and 263 days in 2013, according to UN data.

Tunnels have been the main source of imports to the strip during the blockade, with Palestinians estimating that 80 percent of food supplies and 30 percent of commercial goods were transported through tunnels prior to Egypt’s campaign to demolish them.

The destruction of the tunnels has been an Israeli goal since the 1980s, when the first tunnels were discovered three years after the 1979 peace treaty, which split Rafah into Egyptian and Palestinian sides, roughly along the British-Ottoman colonial borders of 1906.

The Philadelphi Accord signed between Egypt and Israel in 2005 ahead of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza aimed at establishing a buffer zone between Sinai and Gaza to prevent the smuggling of weapons.

Israeli post-war plans reportedly include the construction of a wall along the Gaza-Egypt border to prevent the operation of tunnels allegedly used for smuggling weapons, according to Israeli media outlets Channel 12 and Ynet.

The Washington Post last week, days after Israel’s Rafah crossing operation, reported that US officials were working with Cairo to find and destroy Rafah tunnels that they believe Hamas has used to smuggle weapons.

During the current war, the crossing has been the main entry point for food, medical aid and other essential supplies as Israel has closed all other land crossings since the Hamas-led attack on 7 October.

The crossing has been opened intermittently by Egypt, which has accused Israel of bombing it several times and imposing restrictive measures by requiring prior screenings of aid trucks at a distant Israeli crossing.

Israel’s military invasion of the Rafah crossing and its surrounding area – in apparent breach of its bilateral agreements with Egypt – has led to speculation about an end to 45 years of peace since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed the Camp David Accords in 1978.

Egypt has refused to work with Israel to operate the crossing since last week, with President Sisi saying Israel wants to use control of Rafah “to tighten the siege of the enclave”.

Netanyahu stressed on Wednesday that Cairo was holding Gaza “hostage” by refusing to work with Israel to reopen the crossing.

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