By Sharif Nashashibi
November 9, 2014
Look back through years of reports on the Gaza blockade, and one finds countless statements from Egyptian officials about the need to stem the flow of weapons and militants from their country into Palestinian territory. Since the military intervention to remove Mohammed Morsi last year, Cairo has been facing the reverse of the argument.
We are told that the problem is actually arms and fighters entering Egypt from Gaza, and that this poses an existential threat. This development – greatly amplified by last month’s militant attack in the Sinai that killed 31 soldiers – is being used to justify the establishment of a buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, and the subsequent mass evacuation of Sinai residents and the demolition of their homes.
But if Sinai militants want weapons and reinforcements, the least practical way to get them would be from Gaza, which has been under blockade by its only two neighbours, Egypt and Israel, for several years.
Successive Egyptian administrations have been keen to stress the effectiveness of their crackdowns on smuggling tunnels. According to officials and smugglers on both sides of the border, by the summer of this year some 95 per cent of tunnels were no longer operational.
Those that are left are reportedly relatively small, unstable and have to supply Gaza’s 1.8 million impoverished people with basic necessities such as food, medicine, clothes, fuel and building supplies. None of this is conducive to a reliable supply of arms or fighters from Gaza.
Even the will to supply Sinai militants is lacking. Why would Gaza militants hand over weapons when they face Israel’s army, which regularly attacks Gaza? Their stocks are already depleted by Israel’s most recent military offensive, and there are warnings from all sides of the likelihood of yet another war (most recently expressed by senior UN official Robert Turner this month).
Hamas, which still runs Gaza despite the formation of a Palestinian unity government, has the added issues of maintaining the recent ceasefire with Israel, and of retaining its status as the dominant force in the territory. It needs military strength to achieve both.
Cairo accuses Hamas of involvement in the aforementioned Sinai attack (and a string of others), something the group denies. It would be counterproductive for Hamas to antagonise Egypt into increasing the isolation and impoverishment of Gaza, and thereby the group itself.
The suggestion that Gaza is supplying Sinai militants is also unlikely given the myriad other routes that are far more plentiful, lucrative and accessible.
Egypt has long and porous borders with war-torn Libya and Sudan, and extensive Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines. By far its shortest border is with Gaza, which at just 13 kilometres represents only 0.2 per cent of the total of length of Egypt’s borders (some 5,370 kilometres).
Furthermore, Egypt is surrounded by countries that are awash with weapons. An abundance of supply and choice would make them considerably cheaper than getting them from Gaza. Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Syria and Iran are among the countries cited as sources and supply routes for Sinai militants – in other words, rich pickings.
“The proliferation of weapons from Libya continues at an alarming rate,” and “represents a challenge primarily for Egypt’s internal security, in particular in relation to armed groups in the Sinai,” according to a UN report published last year. In June this year, former Libyan prime minister Ali Zeidan said his country “will turn into a battlefield against Egypt if no measures are taken by the Libyan and Egyptian government”.
The issue of Gaza with regard to violence in Sinai is a red herring. In the past year, the authorities and the media have made Hamas – an offshoot of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – a convenient scapegoat for many of the country’s problems. The resulting public animosity towards Hamas has meant that claims against the group have gone unquestioned.
This is convenient for the government in the context of the Sinai evacuations because it can portray its decision as a necessary strategy against foreign meddling and terrorism. The public are thus more likely to accept the toll on Sinai’s residents. This may work in the short term as Cairo is seen to be acting tough against growing insecurity.
However, a misdiagnosis of the root causes of Sinai’s unrest, and a tough response to it, will not solve the problem.
The risk is that the buffer zone will not enhance security. What will be the government’s line then?
Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs