Beneath the Philadelphi Route: Egypt, Hamas, and the Battle for the Gaza Tunnels


The Egyptian crackdown on the Gaza tunnels, which began in February 2013, is a symptom of growing anti-Palestinian and anti-Hamas sentiment in Egypt. Although the country has been moving away from Nasser’s vision of pan-Arab nationalism for decades, the distinctly negative portrayal of Palestinians is a new development. The Egyptian-Palestinian relationship has not been the same since the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978, which resulted in Egypt’s expulsion from the Arab League. But with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, many expected a positive change in Egyptian-Palestinian relations. This has not been the case. Anti-Palestinian, particularly anti-Hamas, sentiment has only grown since the ouster of Mohammad Morsi.

Palestinian supporters applauded Morsi’s backing of Hamas in the 2012 Gaza Conflict and his more liberal policy regarding crossings at Rafah, the only Egyptian-Gazan crossing point. However, Amira Howeidy of Electronic Intifadah concludes that, in general, the Muslim Brotherhood reneged on their previous pro-Palestinian policies while in power. Under Morsi’s rule, disappointments included upholding the 1978 Camp David Accords, demolishing the Gaza tunnels, and permitting rising anti-Palestinian and anti-Hamas rhetoric.

The tunnels located beneath Rafah connect Gaza with Egypt, and while dangerous and illegal, they are indispensable for Gaza’s economy. Yet Egypt is helping to dismantle the tunnel network. The Egyptian military repeatedly cites the death of 16 Egyptian border guards near the Egyptian-Gaza border on August 6, 2012 as the impetus for the closing of the Gaza tunnels. Egypt claims the incident was perpetrated by militants who came through the tunnels, which Hamas denies. Egyptians are concerned that they are losing control of the Sinai Peninsula, and domestic news sources continue to write about recent daily attacks by Islamic militants in the Rafah area.  Twenty Egyptians have been killed since July 3rd, with six deaths occurring as recently as Monday, July 22nd. They see the violence in the area as overflow from Gaza, and the closure of the tunnels as the most effective method of preventing such spillover

The anti-Hamas rhetoric is also a result of fears that Hamas desires to interfere in Egyptian affairs in an attempt to gain prominence and power in the Sinai Peninsula. Although this fear is politically directed at Hamas, all Palestinians are affected by Egyptian government measures to prevent Hamas’ terrorism. The new military regime has banned Palestinians from entering Egypt, and there are wild reports of invasions and attacks in the Sinai by Hamas troops from Gaza. The Rafah border crossing, controlled by Egypt, is the only gateway for people (not goods) to travel between Egypt and the Gaza strip, and the military regime closed it indefinitely in early July after ousting Morsi. As of July 20th it has been re-opened for four hours per day to allow through only “stranded patients, humanitarian cases, and foreigners,” according to an Egyptian official.

Despite his mixed record towards Palestinians, Egyptians continue to link Mohammad Morsi, and the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hamas. First, Morsi was accused on Al Kahera Wal Nas TV of being of “Palestinian origin” on July 8th in an attempt to discredit him. Then on Friday, July 26th, the Egypt Independent reported that the government had detained Morsi for fifteen days on charges of spying for Hamas in the Gaza Strip, among other accusations.

Perhaps in an attempt to capitalize on the rising anti-Hamas sentiment in Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas, PLO President and leader of Hamas’ rival Fatah, visited Cairo on Monday, July 29th, in a show of support for the new regime. According to Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah, the visit’s purpose was to strengthen Palestinian-Egyptian relations and to discuss the peace process as well as the humanitarian status of the Gaza Strip. At the same time, Hamas has denied all interest in interfering in Egypt and accused rival Fatah of fomenting anti-Hamas rumors there.

Such Palestinian overtures are desperately needed.

As of July 9th there was a growing shortage of gasoline and cooking oil as well as increasing food insecurity for inhabitants of the Gaza territory, which has a 30 percent unemployment rate. The tunnel closures have cost Gaza $230 million dollars since June; roughly ten percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to Ala Al-Rafati, Hamas’ Economic Minister.

Both Israel and Egypt appear to be making efforts to relieve the impending humanitarian crisis. For example, Israel has allowed 310 truckloads of goods and 190 tons of gas through the Kerem Shalom (Karem Abu Salem in Arabic) crossing point. Meanwhile, Ehud Yaari, an Israeli analyst specializing in the Sinai, told the Jerusalem Post that Egypt is carefully monitoring the goods moving through the tunnels to ensure enough arrive, but Egyptian officials refused to confirm this.

Hamas claims these efforts are not enough. Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zhuri said that “the ongoing closure of tunnels without making an alternative is practically strangling Gaza,” and asserts that Hamas is capable of creating such an alternative if necessary.

These worsening tensions between Egypt and Hamas affect more than politics: the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is rapidly becoming more serious as the tunnels are destroyed. Prices have skyrocketed and new construction in particular has come to a halt. In a territory that already faces huge challenges, this latest animosity from an old friend hits particularly hard. Can Egypt achieve its security aims without further exacerbating tensions and the humanitarian crisis within the Palestinian territories?