Closing Arms Tunnels Crucial to Ending Israel-Hamas War

Ending Hamas War With Israel Depends on Ending Iranian Smuggling
An Israeli soldier stands on top of his tank at an Israeli army deployment area near the Israel-Gaza Strip border. Photgrapher: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is unlikely to end their conflict unless smuggling routes the militant group uses to re-arm itself are closed, a challenge that so far has stymied Israel and now puts new pressure on Egypt’s Islamist government.

“We have to find a way of blocking the great smuggling of sophisticated arms from Iran, including long-range missiles across the desert into Gaza,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said yesterday on Fox News. Oren has estimated that as much as 90 percent of Hamas’s long-range missiles were destroyed by Israel’s operation.

U.S. President Barack Obama pledged yesterday that the U.S. would “intensify” efforts to help Israel deal with weapons and explosives smuggling through Egypt into Gaza in a telephone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a White House statement.

So long as militants can restock their arsenals with goods from Sudan, Libya and Iran smuggled through Gaza’s tunnels, any Israeli success against Hamas will be short-term, said analysts such as Adam Hug, policy director at the Foreign Policy Centre in London. Hamas, which rules Gaza, is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

Durable progress will require cooperation from the fledgling government of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi must weigh public support for Hamas, sympathy for the people of Gaza and antipathy toward Israel against his country’s dependence on economic aid from the U.S., the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

‘Humanitarian Pressures’

“Mursi doesn’t want to be seen doing Israel’s bidding during a time of direct conflict,” Hug said. “The question is how they can come to a more sustainable situation that relieves humanitarian pressures while strengthening the grip on security.”

The tunnels Hamas uses to smuggle arms are also used to circumvent an Israeli blockade of Gaza and deliver food, fuel, medicine and other civilian goods.

There’s no definitive assessment of Hamas’s remaining missile arsenal after Israel’s weeklong Operation Pillar of Defense. Yiftah Shapir, an analyst with the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, estimated that Hamas may have 10 percent to 20 percent of its rockets left.

Riccardo Fabiani, an analyst in the London office of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy, said that part of Hamas’s “arsenal hasn’t been reached, and is unlikely to be wiped out by Israel unless a ground invasion takes place.”

Hamas Arsenal

In addition to Iranian-made medium-range Fajr 5 rockets, which can reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, smugglers have brought in Grad rockets with a range of 20 kilometers to 40 kilometers (12.4 to 25 miles). Gaza militants are also thought to have Chinese WS-1E rockets, which have a 40-kilometer (25-mile) range.

Hamas relies on financing and arms supplies from Iran, Syria and Lebanon, as well as from “unfettered arms markets such as Eritrea and Yemen, and possibly China,” Israeli military intelligence officials told U.S. diplomats, according to a classified November 2009 State Department cable made public by Wikileaks last year.

The State Department refuses to comment on the cables released by Wikileaks.

Yesterday, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich told CNN that Iran was trying to supply Hamas with additional longer-range missiles while the recent fighting was under way. In a press conference yesterday, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said that “Iran played a part in providing weapons and financial support.”

Smuggling Routes

The weapons are transported from Iran to Egypt via the Red Sea, Sudan or Libya and from there through the Sinai and into the estimated 400 to 500 tunnels that dot Egypt’s border with Gaza.

The tunnels provide jobs for about 70,000 of the 1.4 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and are managed by a Hamas “tunnels committee” that taxes the flow of goods, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The tunnel infrastructure is large and redundant, said Daniel Byman, a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, and “best closed from the Egyptian side.”

Whether it will be is problematic. Under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt made sure weapons such as the Fajr 5 that could shift the balance of power didn’t get into Gaza, said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York policy group.

‘Too Stressed’

Egypt’s new government is “too stressed out on other issues” to deal effectively with the tunnels, said Paul Sullivan, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington. “The fact that the Egyptian military could not stop the murder of their own in North Sinai in July says a lot.”

Egypt wants to tackle the problem, said General Mohamed el Keshky, the military attaché at the Egyptian embassy in Washington. Since Aug. 16, Egyptian forces have demolished 202 tunnels into Gaza, el Keshky said in a telephone interview.

“It’s difficult because you destroy one tunnel, they build another, but it affects our national security, so we try to secure this area from illegal smuggling, rockets and drugs,” el Keshky said.

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