The destruction of tunnels under the Palestinian-Egyptian borders and tightening the siege on the Gaza Strip (GS) comprised harsh, unprecedented measures that exacerbated the suffering of the Gazans.
The measures undertaken by the Egyptian Army following the military coup do not seem to be solely aimed at the protection of the Egyptian security. Rather, they are part of an agenda targeting the Arab spring and its outputs, and seeking to undermine the Hamas-led government in GS, which is a manifestation of political Islam that flourished after the Arab uprisings.
It is not likely at the current stage to witness Egyptian or Israeli military incursions into GS. However, their strangulation policy would probably continue, in order to confront Hamas with an immense economic, political and social crises, and incite the masses against the movement, thus leading to its collapse.
The national and humanitarian interests make it necessary to lift the GS siege, rather than taking advantage of the suffering of the people to impose political agendas. While Hamas leadership has to demonstrate its non-interference in the Egyptian internal issues, the Ramallah-based government has to work towards lifting the siege.
In addition, both sides have to prioritize higher interests by accelerating the national reconciliation process and putting the Palestinian house in order.
Factors Affecting the Parties’ Choice of the Most Suitable Track to Topple the GS Government
The Probable Scenarios for the Campaign of Tunnel Destruction
Factors Affecting the Development of the Probable Scenario
Digging tunnels beneath the Palestinian-Egyptian borders has started since 1982, where the tunnels were used to enter a miscellany of goods and commodities from Egypt to the GS. However, the phenomenon has flourished drastically after Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 and the Israeli besiegement of the Palestinian government in GS aiming at toppling it. However, the tunnels multiplied greatly after Hamas’s control of Gaza following the summer 2007 events.
The tunnels network became the lifeline for the GS, which has been besieged since around seven years ago. In order to control this network which is essential for the GS economy, the Palestinian government there established a special body, affiliated with the Ministry of Interior, to organize the tunnel work.
After the military coup in Egypt, the Egyptian Army tightened the siege on GS with unprecedented measures, thus destroying around 90% of the border tunnels. In early September 2013, the Egyptian military spokesperson, Ahmad Muhammad ‘Ali, declared that the army destroyed 343 tunnels.
After that, the army started to establish a 500-meter buffer zone along the borders, in order to increase the pressure on the besieged Strip. All these measures, justified with security needs, caused the displacement of large communities adjacent to the borders in such areas as Salahuddin, al-Barahma, Canada Refugee Camp, Brazil Refugee Camp and al-Sarsuriyyah. In addition, they led to the closure of the offshore area between Egypt and Gaza, restricting the movement of Palestinian fishermen who were targeted by the Egyptian Coast Guard.
Although the Israeli and Egyptian sides are trying to lessen media focus on their military cooperation, reports show that security coordination and cooperation between the two have never been stronger or deeper.
The Economic Implications of Tunnel Destruction on Gaza:
The harsh siege of Gaza caused by tunnel destruction has led to increased unemployment and poverty rates that exceeded 40%. In addition, it caused tens of thousands of Gazans to lose their jobs where Palestinian Minister of Economy, ‘Alaa al-Rafati, declared that economic losses reached $460 million by September 2013.
The Political Implications of Tunnel Destruction on the Palestinian Scene:
Doubtless, the destruction of tunnels and the subsequent economic and social implications in the GS—whether on the government, the factions, or the masses—will lead to serious political implications on the overall Palestinian political scene. The most important probable effects in this context include:
– The Palestinian Authority (PA) may take advantage of the situation and put pressure on Hamas to prevent the movement from escalating its opposition to the negotiations track, which is rejected by large segments of the Palestinian people.
– Putting pressure on the resistance track in the GS in order to consolidate the concept that it’s a non-effective option for the Palestinian people facing the occupation.
– The destruction of the tunnels is a reflection of the changes in Egypt on the Palestinian scene. It might affect the balance of Palestinian forces, which was in favor of Hamas after the Arab Spring.
– It allows the PA to elevate its position among the Palestinian people, through Abbas’s mediation with the occupation authorities, and the current Egyptian leadership to mitigate the Gaza siege. Thus, enhancing the Palestinians’ impression of the PA’s capabilities and effective role, as compared to Hamas’s inability and weakness.
– Some Fatah leaders see that tightening the siege, and the presence of an Egyptian regime hostile to Hamas, give Fatah and the PA new pressure tools to impose Fatah’s vision regarding the reconciliation, and force Hamas to surrender its authority in Gaza.
Egyptian officials have referred the reasons to mere security conditions in order to control the security in Sinai, and prevent the smuggling of weapons and fighters from the GS to Egypt. The Egyptian Army leadership continues to accuse fundamentalist forces in Gaza, and sometimes Hamas, of participating in the attacks launched against the Egyptian Army, in a way or another.
However, a thorough reading of the unprecedented Egyptian Army measures, and the accompanying intensive propaganda to demonize Hamas movement and the Palestinian people in Gaza, confirm that the campaign has a special political agenda.
It is also clear that the Egyptian Army’s measures against the GS are not unilateral, but rather come within an international and regional political agenda being implemented in the region. The general outline of such an agenda targets the Arab spring and its outputs, while its particular goals aim at besieging the Palestinian government in Gaza; where this government is considered a manifestation of political Islam that prevailed in the region following the Arab uprisings.
– Increasing social pressure on the Palestinian government in Gaza in order to topple it.
– Convincing the public that political Islam has failed by curbing the “Hamas’s rule” experience.
– Internal Egyptian needs, as the interim Egyptian leadership seeks to export its internal crisis beyond its borders by campaigning against GS, in order to cover up for the setbacks of the current leadership.
– The efforts of the Army in Sinai and the besiegement of Gaza come within the return of the Egyptian regime to the “Arab moderation axis,” and the improvement of its relations with the US and Israel.
The sides targeting the GS, and these are local Palestinian, regional and international parties, have different views regarding toppling Hamas’s rule there.
– One viewpoint sees that the best way is the gradual strangulation of the Strip and then waiting for the siege to yield its fruition. The aim would be to trigger popular discontent in Gaza through economic pressure, so that the people would rebel against the government.
-The second opinion calls for going further through military targeting of the GS whether across the Egyptian borders, or through a comprehensive Israeli military incursion.
– According to the third opinion, the optimal solution is to achieve Palestinian reconciliation, linking the West Bank (WB) with the GS again, activating the safe passage between them to promote economic exchange, in order to dismantle Hamas’s economic, political and popular control over the Strip, and ultimately topple its government.
Several factors play a role in determining the best way for international, regional and local players to topple the GS government. These factors include:
– The ability of the military coup to consolidate its rule. In fact, it is not likely for the Egyptian Army to resort to escalatory choices against Gaza in light of current regime’s occupation with the internal issues. Still, it will try to make the highest possible pressure on Gaza. Intensive pressure may also be rejected by Israel for fear of a Gazan explosion against the occupation.
– The choice would depend on the extent of agreement between the PA and the new regime in Egypt, and on Cairo’s ability to create rapprochement between ‘Abbas and Dahlan, since the latter has significant ability to influence events in GS.
– The ability of Hamas to control the situation in Gaza would have a decisive impact on the outputs of this confrontation. That is the extent it can control the resistance, its performance and friction with the occupation forces; and also the extent it can control the internal front, enhancing national unity and intensifying dialogue between the different Palestinian factions.
– The Israeli factor is an essential determinant in dealing with the GS where it would be difficult for the external sides to ignore or overcome the Israeli limitations. Apparently, Israel is not interested in an invasion or in severe strangulation of Gaza, pending the crystallization of the coup in Egypt, and for fear of an explosion of the situation in the Strip.
Facts on the ground show that a calculated level of siege is the option currently being implemented, in order to avoid the huge reverberations of a Gaza explosion. However, some see that the Egyptian Army might overcome this trend through limited targeting of Gaza, if the Egyptian authorities sensed an escalation of the internal impasse, as a way to escape the internal crisis. However, this option is still unlikely.
The Probable Scenarios for the Campaign of Tunnel Destruction:
1. The Détente Scenario: This scenario is branched into two:
– A Palestinian dialogue would lead to a joint administration of Rafah in agreement with Cairo. Hence, the crisis would be resolved though the presence of members of the Palestinian Presidential Guard at the Rafah crossing.
– Returning to the old formula before Morsi was deposed: Due to popular or official (international or local) pressure on the new regime, the latter would be forced to open the Rafah crossing normally.
2. The Chaos Scenario:
This scenario suggests the emergence of an overwhelming popular discontent due to the siege, and the success of Tamarrod movement in Gaza to create chaos in the Strip. Such chaos would urge the Palestinian security forces in Gaza to pursue excessive force against the masses, leading to the explosion of the overall situation. Ultimately, Hamas’s government will lose its control over the GS.
3. Military Escalation Scenario: This is divided into two:
– A limited Egyptian military incursion into GS, in order to put pressure on the Gaza government to topple it, and to allow Muhammd Dahlan’s forces to enter GS.
– A comprehensive Israeli military incursion seeking to uproot the Hamas rule, and return the PA to GS.
4. The Strangle-and-Wait Scenario
The level of the siege would increase gradually in order to strangulate Gaza but at a calculated pace, to provoke people against the government, and create further problems, awaiting the settlement of the situation in Egypt, which would allow the pursuit of a decisive option later.
The last scenario is the most likely, since it is the least costly and the most suitable in light of the current challenges and hindrances facing the other scenarios. In addition, the Israeli factor, which is likely in the current equation, favors this scenario. Moreover, nothing makes it unlikely to combine the convergent scenarios under mature conditions, such as the second and fourth scenarios.
– The track of the Egyptian military coup and its outputs, and the track of the democratic transformations in Egypt.
– Israel’s assessment of the cost of the probable scenario and its ability to bear it, besides its ability to coordinate with Washington in this sense.
– The current regional developments which are seeking to terminate the Arab spring and rearrange the situation in such a way that would preserve the American and Israeli interests, and the interests of the old regimes.
– The extent of steadfastness of the Palestinian government in GS and its ability to control the internal situation, and the internal front.
– The Palestinian sides have to prioritize national interests by speeding up their agreement on the administration of the Rafah crossing, in joint coordination with Egypt, to put an end to the humanitarian suffering in Gaza in the least.
– The Arab League General Secretariat has to call for an urgent meeting for the Arab foreign ministers to discuss the Gaza siege, and to find a consensual formula for running the Rafah crossing.
– The Arab and international human rights organizations have to adopt a wide campaign, within a humanitarian context, on a regional and international level, to call for a permanent opening of the Rafah crossing and putting an end to the Gaza siege.
– The Gaza-based government has to exert all possible efforts to convince all Palestinian parties that GS must be run on national partnership basis. It also has to initiate deep dialogue among all political forces to strengthen national unity, and to control the performance of the resistance in agreement with the other factions.
– The official and popular political forces, and all parties, institutions, and concerned organizations have to persuade the Egyptian authorities to open the Rafah crossing, based on national and humanitarian perspectives.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. ‘Abdul Rahman Farahanah for authoring the original text on which this Assessment was based.