Egypt's holy war against Sinai jihadists leaves many questions unanswered
Facing radical Islamists, Egypt and Hamas enter a coalition of sorts with Israel. But Cairo's conciliatory approach toward them might backfire.
EGYPT-ISRAEL-GAZA-STRIP BORDER- In contrast to the sloppy-looking Egyptian soldiers we saw here three weeks ago, the troops we encountered on Monday of last week at a fortified position close to the Kerem Shalom crossing seemed to be from a different unit. They wore helmets and protective vests and held their Kalashnikov rifles at the ready. They bore no resemblance to the Egyptian border police who were here until a few days after the August 5 attack on an Egyptian outpost which left 17 of their troops dead.
Perhaps the main difference is that the new soldiers are a lot less nice. They immediately started waving their hands at the photographer not to take pictures. Although a certain tension still marked the movements of the soldiers after the first week when helicopters and armored vehicles went into action against armed extremists, there were hardly any reports this week of shooting incidents or arrests.
Last Wednesday morning, the Defense Ministry in Cairo announced that the armed forces were extending their activity in Sinai. However, that same day AP ran a story quoting former Islamic radicals released from prison in Egypt who became President Mohammed Morsi's emissaries in secret talks held in the past few days with jihadists in Sinai. According to these emissaries, an agreement was reached on a ceasefire between the Islamist groups in Sinai and the Egyptian army. The jihadists promised to stop the attacks against Egypt, Morsi's emissaries undertook to stop the offensive by Egypt, and both sides agreed on the need to take action against foreign militants who arrive from outside Egypt or Sinai with the aim of striking at Egyptian targets. Morsi, grasping the limits of his army's ability to act against the armed groups in central Sinai, particularly in the mountainous Jebel Halal region, apparently preferred to stop the fighting and arrive at understandings, even if he viewed them as deals with the devil.
However, Morsi, whose behavior recalls the pattern of action undertaken by Hamas against the jihadists in Gaza, is liable to discover - just as the Hamas leaders did - what happens to people who lie down with dogs. If the Egyptian president ends the military operation in Sinai without ridding the area of the terrorist elements, he is liable to wake up with a rash of flea bites - in the form of terrorist attacks in Cairo and Alexandria, or perhaps in his preferred form of attacks against Israeli targets.
Supply and demand
About a kilometer northwest of the juncture of the Egyptian, Israeli and Gazan borders, Egyptian bulldozers continue to demolish tunnels running from Egyptian Rafah into the Gaza Strip. The operation is concentrating on "illegal tunnels" - those not under Hamas supervision on the Palestinian side. To date the Egyptians have destroyed about 120 of the 1,200 active subterranean passages. The partial blow to the underground commercial activity led immediately to an increase in the amount of goods entering the Strip from the Israeli side via the Kerem Shalom terminal.
Here's how it works: When the "smuggling" of goods through the tunnels operates without interference, the demand in Gaza for Israeli goods declines. Every problem that occurs in the movement of goods through the tunnels (such as their being closed by Hamas ) immediately increases the demand for Israeli merchandise. Just in the past few days, for example, the flour and sugar dealers in Gaza started buying those commodities from Israel again, following months in which they purchased them in Egypt and brought them into the Strip through the tunnels. Kerem Shalom is the only passage for goods currently operating between Gaza and Israel. Without drawing much attention, impressive commercial activity is taking place through the crossing. There is no siege. Not even a closure. On the eve of the famous Gaza flotilla project, about 60 or 70 truckloads a day entered Gaza through Kerem Shalom. At present, about 250 trucks a day bring goods in via Kerem Shalom, according to Kamil Abu Rukun, the Israeli Defense Ministry official who oversees the border crossings with the Palestinians. The Kerem Shalom crossing was upgraded and expanded at a cost of NIS 75 million since the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, and is now capable of handling the entry of 450 trucks a day into the Strip. But on the Israeli side, officials claim that the Palestinian demand for goods does not require more than 250 trucks at present, mainly due to the ongoing supply through the tunnels.
The activity at the crossing shows how empty Hamas slogans about "jihad" or fighting Israel are. In every possible sense, Hamas is currently cooperating with Israel indirectly to maintain quiet in the Gaza Strip and allow a reasonable level of economic activity. Hamas is not physically present on the Gaza side of the crossing but controls the access routes to it and is effectively in charge of securing it. For example, B., a Palestinian worker at the crossing, told Haaretz that to be able to work there he needs a Hamas-issued permit. Every morning, when he arrives for work on the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom, Hamas security personnel check his permit. Terrorists are not allowed to approach the site; Hamas needs an open crossing as much as it needs the tunnels.
The Palestinian crossing is operated by two families that were granted the franchise by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. They of course received Hamas authorization, too. They are responsible for security at the Palestinian side of the crossing, while Hamas secures the site from the outside. Coordination with Israel is maintained by Riad Fatuah, from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry in Ramallah, who is also in touch with the Hamas government in Gaza and with its representatives.
"Amazing" is the word used by sources on the Israeli side to describe the current level of cooperation. The security demands are implemented on the Palestinian side of the crossing as well, and the Israelis have the ability to see what is happening there at any given moment. To enable the expansion of the crossing's Palestinian side, for example, Israeli bulldozers entered the Strip (in coordination with the Palestinians ) to do the groundwork.
The Israeli personnel have no real contact with the Palestinian side. The two sides are separated by a "sterile" zone in which the goods that arrive from Israel are unloaded. The trucks on the Israeli side undergo a rigorous security check by means of a huge scanner. After the Israeli drivers leave, "mediators" who have undergone a security check enter the zone with their trucks (which have also been checked ) to load the goods, and then unload them on the Palestinian side 400 meters away.
At this point, drivers who have not undergone a security check arrive to load the goods onto their trucks and take them into the Strip, again through Hamas checkpoints. The Hamas government has often tried to impose levies on the truck drivers, but unsuccessfully. A series of strikes by the drivers made it clear to the authorities that collecting money for Israeli goods for which the merchants have already paid taxes to the Palestinian Authority is no easy matter.
This also explains why Hamas wants to reduce the entry of goods from Israel to the minimum, and to exploit the tunnels to the maximum. In contrast to the situation at Kerem Shalom, they rake in huge profits from the tunnels. For example, the taxes that Hamas levies on fuel imported from Egypt enriches its treasury by some NIS 700 million a year. This year, more than 50 percent of the goods entering Gaza were of non-Israeli origin.
The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has the opposite interest: to ensure that the majority of the goods enter via Kerem Shalom, as this boosts the revenues of the Ramallah government and reduces Hamas income from the tunnels. In any event, the unhindered movement of goods into Gaza through both the crossing and the tunnels has made large-scale construction possible in the Strip - so much so that there is now a serious shortage of construction workers there. Young men are being sent to Turkey in organized groups to learn the trade.
Kerem Shalom currently operates only in the daytime. However, Abu Rukun and the crossing's security officer, Ami Shaked, say they are ready to open the site at night as well if the demand arises and following a decision by the civilian officials. "This is not a crossing of peace," they explain. "It is a crossing that is meant to operate even under threats."
Surprisingly, there are few threats. In the past year, only three rounds of mortar shells were fired at the crossing, which is close to Rafah. According to Shaked, who was the security officer for the former Gush Katif bloc of Israeli settlements in Gaza, in at least one case the launch of mortars was intended to protest the transfer of fuels from Israel to Gaza in quantities that were reducing the tunnels' profits. This, too, is apparently a method of protest by the tunnel owners: they have to make a living somehow.