As pressure mounted around the world for a Gaza ceasefire this week, it became clear that the key to a truce lay in Egypt — from where weapons are smuggled into Gaza.
Israel’s demand for a stop to the smuggling is based on lessons learned from the Second Lebanon War. UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the war and saw the deployment of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon, did not put an end to the smuggling of weapons from Syria to Lebanon. Since then, Hizbollah is believed to have tripled its missile stockpile from 15,000 to over 40,000 with longer ranges and larger warheads.
“We will not allow this to happen again,” explained a senior official from Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office. “This time, a ceasefire will have to include a stop to the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza.”
Palestinians began digging tunnels in Gaza in the 1970s so families could enter Egypt to visit relatives. Over the years, they began to smuggle in food, electronics and then weapons.
The activity picked up speed after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, after which Israeli Military Intelligence estimated that Hamas had dug over 300 tunnels along the 14km strip of land, mostly with entrances hidden inside homes near the border. Smuggling has become a way of life in Rafah. A box of cigarettes can bring $70 (£48), a box of bullets $200 (£138) and more advanced weaponry several thousand dollars.
Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, Israel has destroyed over 200 tunnels. At least 100 remain and Hamas, intelligence officials said, is still trying to smuggle long-range rockets and high-grade explosives into the Strip.
“If we do not stop the smuggling then Hamas will have missiles in a short time that will reach Tel Aviv,” Military Intelligence chief Maj-Gen Amos Yadlin warned the Israeli cabinet this week.
Israel had initially hoped Egypt would agree to the deployment of a multinational force along the border but Cairo rejected the proposal and instead asked that Israel permit the deployment of another 1,000 Egyptian soldiers along the border, a move that would require changes to the peace treaty between the countries. Another idea being floated is the construction of a moat along the Philadelphi Corridor that would be filled with water and make it much harder to dig tunnels across the border.
Other officials have been pushing for an Israeli reoccupation of the corridor. One is Maj-Gen Yom-Tov Samia, currently serving as an advisor in the IDF’s Southern Command, which is in charge of the war in Gaza.
“The Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza should be the first priority for Israel. We should not expect the Egyptians to do the job for us, so this means we should clear the 3km from our side,” Mr Samia wrote recently in an article for a Jerusalem think tank. “As I have been saying for years, Israel should reoccupy Philadelphi and should stay there until we have had a peaceful relationship with the Palestinians for 25 years.”