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analysisIsrael at War

What can Israel do with the Egypt-Gaza border?

Israel is being extremely careful to show deference to Egypt and el-Sisi and is fully aware of the sensitivities surrounding the Philadelphi Corridor.

Palestinians (foreground) are blocked by Egyptian police after Palestinian terrorists exploded a part of the border wall in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, June 29, 2006. Photo by Ahmad Khateib/Flash90.
Palestinians (foreground) are blocked by Egyptian police after Palestinian terrorists exploded a part of the border wall in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah, June 29, 2006. Photo by Ahmad Khateib/Flash90.
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.

The Philadelphi Corridor, where Israel is for the time being refraining from engaging in ground operations during the current Gaza war, is the security buffer zone between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

Israel established it after ceding the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace accords. Israel controlled this wafer-thin strip of land, not always with a great deal of success, until September 2005, when as part of the disengagement plan, it handed it over to Egypt.

The prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, objected to any attempt to give up control of the Philadelphi Corridor. The Israel Security Agency, better known as Shin Bet, also objected to this, but the legal position was that as long as Israel was in control of the Philadelphi Corridor, it would not be possible to declare Israel’s complete pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The narrow strip of land that runs the length of the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt, from the coast to Kerem Shalom, was thus excluded from the agreement regarding the demilitarization of Sinai, and Jerusalem authorized Egypt to maintain a 750-strong force there together with heavy weapons. The Rafah area inside the Strip was given over to the PLO.

The almost immediate result was an exponential increase in the number of cross-border tunnels, with a concomitant increase in the volume of arms smuggling from Sinai into the Gaza Strip. This ongoing activity was nothing more than a promo for the seizure of control of the corridor on the Palestinian side by Hamas in the summer of 2007, which led to the embargo imposed by Israel and Egypt on the Gaza Strip.

The hole in the bucket

Now, during the current war, this 14 km.-long and 100-meter-wide (8.7 mile-long and 109 yard-wide) land corridor is the hole in the bucket, the breach in the dam. Hamas is still able to smuggle, and indeed still does so, arms to Rafah and the greater Gaza Strip both through it and underneath it. It has done so for many years, directly in the face of the Egyptians who were supposed to oversee what goes on there, and what is even worse—underneath Israel’s nose too.

When Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was recently asked if there are still active tunnels underneath the Philadelphi Corridor that are used for smuggling, he gave a laconic reply: “A few.”

According to one security source, there are still about 10 active tunnels operating underneath the Philadelphi Corridor, some of which are designed for “military”-related smuggling and some of which host criminal-related smuggling. Other sources mention dozens of tunnels.

Only a few weeks ago, concern was expressed that the Israeli hostages might be smuggled out of Gaza through these tunnels into Sinai, and it was reported that Israel is operating in a variety of ways to prevent such an eventuality from occurring.

Israel has refrained from publishing any information concerning its plans relating to Rafah and the Philadelphi Corridor. But it is commonly understood there that a military operation, even an extremely limited one, would force the IDF to maneuver in Rafah and the surrounding tent camps that currently house hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from the northern Gaza Strip, unless they are allowed to return to the north.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, who was head of the National Security Council at the time of the disengagement, said that Israel “does not know what is currently happening, if it is happening, underneath the Philadelphi Corridor, just as it did not know what was going on there prior to October 7.

“What is absolutely clear is that the crazy volumes of standard weapons that are not manufactured in Gaza, which have been uncovered during the present combat effort, did not arrive there from nowhere. They poured into the Gaza Strip via the Philadelphi Corridor over a period of many years,” Eiland said.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s concern

The fate of the Philadelphi Corridor following the war will apparently be decided in the talks that are already ongoing between Israel, Egypt and the U.S. For the time being, Israel has refrained from conducting a military operation along the corridor, mainly due to Egyptian sensitivity, based on President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s concern that 800,000 refugees from the northern Gaza Strip, who are currently overcrowding the Rafah area, will breach the Egyptian border and settle in Sinai.

Israel wants to remove the Gazan-Palestinian officials from the Rafah Border Crossing and to station Israeli troops there. Israel also seeks to widen this strip by an additional few hundred meters, but it is doubtful whether the Americans will allow this. About two decades ago, when a similar plan was on the agenda, the then attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, took the trouble of visiting the Philadelphi Corridor, but he then disqualified the plan when he was told that it involved the demolition of 3,000 homes.

Mazuz’s ruling led directly to the Gaza disengagement. He went on to serve as a justice on the Israeli Supreme Court from 2014 to 2021.

Another plan has now been placed on the table: construction of an underground slurry wall, to be built from the Egyptian side of the Gaza Strip border, that would ostensibly neutralize the tunnels. Egypt built a similar wall in the past to a depth of several dozen meters into the ground, but Hamas succeeded in digging tunnels underneath it.

The U.S. (together with additional states) has already voiced its theoretical consent to participate in the funding of this underground wall. It would work similarly to an existing underground slurry wall that already blocks the path of tunnels penetrating Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip.

In addition, Israel seeks to install warning systems along the Philadelphi Corridor that would provide real-time indications of renewed attempts to dig tunnels there and to operate UAVs over the area. Egypt objects to this demand. It regards this as a violation of its sovereignty there.

This week, Diaa Rashwan, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service, warned that any Israeli move to take control of the Philadelphi Corridor would lead to a severe threat to the bilateral relations between Israel and Egypt.

In contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that without a change in the current reality, including along the Philadelphi Corridor, within a few years the Gaza Strip will return to the scope of armament that characterized it before Oct. 7.

“The Philadelphi Corridor must remain in our hands and it must remain closed. It is clear that any other arrangement will not be able to guarantee the demilitarization that we desire,” warned Netanyahu.

Reverse smuggling?

Eiland said that alongside dissecting the Gaza Strip into two just south of Gaza City, which was carried out with a three-week delay, Israel should have taken control of the Philadelphi Corridor right from the first day of the war, “Not only to stop the smuggling from there but also to expand the corridor there as much as possible.

“It is not possible to maintain the corridor there as it is today, with a width of only about 100 meters,” said Eiland. “We need at least 500 meters there that are completely clean. This should really have been done from the outset. Who knows what has passed through there since then, either underneath or above ground? Theoretically, some of the hostages might have been smuggled into Sinai; there is no way of knowing. Thus, the delay in taking action here might turn out to have been fateful.”

Q: Is a military operation still relevant?

Eiland: “I doubt it. Even if successfully carry it out and we succeed in finding tunnels and destroying them, there is at least one thing that we cannot achieve: Israel itself is currently entering humanitarian supplies into the Gaza Strip—flour and food, which is even more problematic than weapons.

“What is the point of engaging in a campaign with heavy costs in the Philadelphi Corridor in order to prevent smuggling there, when we ourselves are providing them with the flour, water and fuel due to U.S. pressure?”

Q: Did the [Israeli] government make a mistake here?

Eiland: “Yes, I believe so. On October 7, Gaza, which de facto became a state 18 years ago, attacked the State of Israel. The first thing that a state under attack does against the state that is attacking it is to ask itself: What are my advantages in relation to the other side? What is our advantage? In order to defeat the state of Gaza, we have no choice but to impose a blockade on it, as numerous states encountering similar situations have done throughout the course of history.

“We should say to the Americans, and it is still not too late: ‘If you continue with your approach and force us to supply flour, water and fuel to the state of Gaza—you will then effectively be sentencing the hostages to death.’”

There are those in Israel who believe that it is possible to reach an effective agreement with Egypt based on common interests, possibly with U.S. mediation. Having said that, this time it is probably going to be much more of a complex challenge for el-Sisi.

The Israeli public is not fully aware of the chasm between the president of Egypt, who for the moment is preserving the peace agreement with Israel and even engages in military, intelligence and economic cooperation with it—and the state of mind of the masses in Egypt, many of whom positively hate and despise Israel, as this is how they were raised and educated, religiously and/or politically.

We have seen this in Alexandria, where the crowds screamed: “Ya Qassam, Ya Habib, strike and destroy Tel Aviv,” along with the masses on the outskirts of Cairo calling on Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to fire on Tel Aviv, and also in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the crowds burst through the barriers waving PLO flags and tearing photos of el-Sisi into shreds.

Many clerics in Egypt are still only prepared to accept the Jews as no more than a religion, and certainly not as a nation in sovereign possession of a land that they consider to be Islamic land. This view is so deeply enrooted among many people in Egypt, an Arab state with which Israel signed a peace agreement more than 40 years ago, so that even a leader such as el-Sisi, who enjoys excellent personal ties with Israel, does not allow himself to underestimate the power of the masses that might pose a serious threat to his regime.

Israel is being extremely careful to show deference to Egypt and el-Sisi and is fully aware of the sensitivities surrounding the Philadelphi Corridor.

In retrospect, this consideration might turn out to have been a mistake. If Israel does not manage to reach an effective arrangement that will block off smuggling across the corridor for years to come, then sooner or later, the vast influx of weapons into the Gaza Strip will be renewed in precisely the same manner that it was done right under Israel’s nose for many years.

Originally published by Israel Hayom.

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