Hamas Preparing Buffer Zone Along Gaza-Egypt Border

The main question that remains to be answered is the effect these works will have on the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border

Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas patrol a section of the border with Egypt, June 28, 2017.
Members of Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas patrol a section of the border with Egypt, June 28, 2017. SAID KHATIB/AFP

The Hamas interior ministry has begun to prepare a buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and its border with Egypt. Websites associated with the Hamas posted on Wednesday photographs of bulldozers clearing ground dozens of meters in width along the border.

The ministry stated that the works were intended to bolster security and strengthen the organization's control along the border. It also said a 12-kilometer patrol road with guard posts, lighting and cameras along it will be paved along the border.

Gaza security forces chief Tawfiq Abu Naim said the project was agreed upon during the last visit by a Hamas delegation to Egypt. The buffer zone will be 100 meters wide (approx. 320 feet), stretching into the Palestinian side of the border, he said. It will be a closed military zone and will help monitor the border and prevent infiltration and smuggling.

“The message to the Egyptian side is a calming one: Egyptian national security is part of Palestinian national security, and we will not let the peace along the southern border be disturbed,” Abu Naim said.

Sources in Gaza told Haaretz that the works will force a lot of families out of their homes. Hamas will have to either pay these families compensation or find them alternative housing. The main question that remains to be answered is the effect these works will have on the tunnels under the border, which remain a major artery connecting the coastal enclave to Egypt.

The work along the border received significant media attention in media run by Hamas with the goal of proving to the Egyptians that the organization is standing by its agreement. 

"Hamas has an express interest in excersising complete control over everything that happens both above ground and in the tunnels," a source close to Hamas told Haaretz. "And those familiar with management of the Strip understands that the tunnels are part of the economy of the Strip a source of income for Hamas."

According to the source, even if the organization has decided to fight against the tunnels, the issue is, in effect, dependent on steps from the Egyptian government, especially regarding the opening of the Rafah border crossing to civilians and goods.

Officials in the Palestinian Authority are following the developments, but are being careful about criticizing Egypt for steps to ease up on Hamas, and the steps taken until now in the buffer zone are within the framework of specific understandings that will not lead to a fundamental change in Egypt's relations with the Gaza Strip or an opening of the borders.

Two weeks ago, a senior delegation of Hamas officials headed by the newly elected prime minister of Gaza Yahya Sinwar visited Cairo and met with representatives of the Egyptian intelligence service. An Egyptian official privy to the details of the meeting told Haaretz that "The Gaza Strip directly touches on the issue of Egyptian national security, especially with regard to what is taking place in northern Sinai." He added that "There is always dialog with Hamas at various levels, even during serious crises. This time the Egyptians decided to have the meeting publically known."

After the meeting the newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat which is published in London reported that the Egyptian intelligence service demanded that Hamas hand over terrorist suspects residing in the Gaza Strip in return for Cairo's help in easing the Gazan electricity crisis. According to the report, the heads of the Egyptian intelligence service presented the Hamas leadership with a list of 17 wanted persons and a list of security demands. According to assessments, these persons are Egyptian nationals and citizens of other counties active in the Islamic State in northern Sinai.