Egyptian army spokesman Tamer al-Rifai said May 4 that Egypt has destroyed more than 3,000 tunnels leading to the Gaza Strip since 2015, noting that these tunnels have posed a threat to the Egyptian national security, as they were used for the infiltration of terrorists and the smuggling of arms, ammunition, goods, drugs and vehicles.
Speaking to the Egyptian eXtra News TV channel, Rifai confirmed that the Egyptian government decided in 2015 to set up a buffer zone along the border with Gaza.
The London-based Arabic-language Al-Araby Al-Jadeed news site reported April 25 that the Egyptian armed forces' Engineering Authority started building a wall on the border between the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, a few meters from the concrete wall that the Egyptian army began building earlier this year.
Al-Araby Al-Jadeed quoted tribal sources as saying that the wall will be equipped with electronic sensors and thermographic cameras to prevent anyone from approaching a 14-kilometer (7-mile) border line separating Egypt from Gaza.
Building the wall comes despite Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, taking several measures in the past years to boost security on the border with Egypt and prevent any infiltration attempts into Egyptian territory. On June 28, 2017, Hamas set up a 100-meter-wide (62-mile) buffer zone into the Palestinian side.
In light of these reports, and following Rifai’s statement, questions arise as to whether Egypt is seeking to further tighten the noose around the Gaza Strip or to protect its own security.
A Hamas source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Hamas has reservations about such walls, particularly since Israeli walls surround Gaza from all sides. He noted that Hamas continues to work on maintaining its border security by deploying security forces and cooperating with the Egyptian side; the movement has made achievements in this regard by foiling several infiltration attempts.
“Hamas has always sought to make the movement to and from the Gaza Strip an easy and not a complicated matter,” he added.
Tayseer Mohsen, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The available estimates indicate that there are between 1,200 and 1,300 tunnels [between Gaza and Egypt]. Thus, it seems the Egyptian government is exaggerating the numbers to make the situation seem dangerous and show off the [Egyptian] army’s capacity to destroy those tunnels.”
Mohsen said the Egyptian statements may be a message to the world to justify the actions of the army, which has been leading an offensive against an Islamist insurgency in Sinai since 2018. The offensive, Mohsen added, has drawn international criticism, especially when it comes to the demolition of civilian buildings and facilities in Sinai and on the Egyptian side of Rafah.
He pointed out that the Egyptian army has long been convinced that the instability in Sinai and the presence of extremist and armed groups are related to the situation in the Gaza Strip, until an agreement was reached between the Egyptian intelligence and Hamas in 2017 to ensure security on the border. Hamas back then agreed to secure the border by building the buffer zone from the Palestinian side to prevent any infiltration attempts into Egypt, he added.
Mohsen believes the new wall aims to boost the Egyptian border control capabilities, as the concrete wall has so far proven insufficient to prevent infiltration attempts.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst close to Hamas, cast doubt on Rifai’s statements, saying 3,000 tunnels cannot be built in a small area not exceeding 14 kilometers. He told Al-Monitor that the number is exaggerated, saying, “There is no need for the tunnels since trade exchange was activated between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The operating tunnels are probably two or three at present.”
He indicated that according to eyewitnesses, the Egyptian army is building an iron wall alongside the concrete and electronic barriers, under the pretext of protecting their national security and preventing infiltration attempts.
He added that the Egyptian intelligence services have admitted that the Palestinian side is making tremendous efforts to prevent infiltration attempts and protect the border. He believes the new wall “is more like reinforcing the siege on the Gaza Strip.”
Sawaf stressed that the Egyptian side has the right to protect its security, provided that it does not affect the Palestinian side and that it does not tighten the siege on Gaza. He added that Egypt needs to take into account that there are 2 million Palestinians in Gaza who consider Egypt to be their sole outlet.
Hassan Abdo, a political analyst close to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, told Al-Monitor, “There cannot be 3,000 border tunnels between Egypt and Gaza. But a tunnel could have more than three openings. While the Egyptian security services demolish one opening, the tunnel’s owners could build another opening.”
He indicated that by building an electronic barrier, Egypt is exercising sovereignty over its own territory, particularly since it considers that what is happening in Sinai is linked to the Gaza Strip. It could also have a political dimension related to the US Middle East plan, which reportedly calls for Egypt to give part of Sinai to Gaza, he added — which explains why Egypt wants to close its border so as to maintain its security and support the Palestinian cause.
Abdo explained that cooperation between Hamas and Egypt on border security probably has had a negative impact on Hamas at the financial and militarily levels, particularly in light of the strained relations between the Islamic State in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza. Yet the Palestinian armed factions in general have managed to overcome that as they developed their military and missile equipment, and found alternatives by developing their internal industries and dispense with the equipment that were smuggled through the tunnels and Sinai.
In regard to the financial level, Abdo noted, “Hamas is imposing taxes on commodities coming from Egypt through Saladin gate next to the [Rafah crossing entrance], as a way to make up for the lost revenues from smuggled goods through the tunnels — although such revenues are the same as those the tunnels provided.”