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Tunnels flooded to cut Gaza arms smuggling, Egypt says

A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 10, 2013. Egypt's campaign to shut down smuggling tunnels running under its border into the Gaza Strip threatens to throw thousands of Palestinians out of work in the Hamas-run enclave. The network of tunnels has been a vital lifeline for Gaza, bringing in an estimated 30 percent of all goods that reach the enclave and circumventing a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt for more than seven years.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters

Egypt will not tolerate a two-way flow of smuggled arms with the Gaza Strip that is destabilizing its Sinai Peninsula, a senior aide to its Islamist President said, explaining why Egyptian forces flooded sub-border tunnels last week.

The network of tunnels has been a lifeline for some 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, bringing in an estimated 30 per cent of all goods that reach the enclave and circumventing a blockade imposed by Israel for more than seven years.

But Essam Haddad, national security adviser to President Mohammed Morsi, told Reuters: "We don't want to see these tunnels used for illegal ways of smuggling either people or weapons that can really harm Egyptian security."

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He said that under a deal brokered by Cairo to end fighting in November between Israel and the Hamas movement that rules the Gaza Strip, the Israeli stranglehold on the coastal territory had been considerably relaxed. Egypt has eased border controls to allow in construction materials, notably from Qatar.

"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. Building materials are allowed in for the first time," Mr. Haddad said.

"And on the other side, we would not like to see arms smuggled through these tunnels, either in or out, because we are now seeing in Sinai and we have captured actually across Egypt heavy arms that could be used in a very dangerous way."

Sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed last August in a militant attack in Sinai near the Gaza fence that shocked Egyptians and highlighted lawlessness in the desert region adjoining Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Last Friday, Egypt said it had seized two tons of explosives hidden in a truck carrying a shipment of fruit and vegetables bound for Sinai. In January, Egypt seized six anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets in the peninsula that smugglers may have intended to send to Gaza.

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