Rafah Tunnels Weaken Mursi Foreign-Policy Resolve on Gaza

In the shadow of a concrete building, a middle-aged man with a weathered face stood several feet from a sobbing Palestinian woman.

Suad Abdel Karim Abu Awamer had waited for hours in a futile effort to cross Egypt’s border into Gaza, the conflict-ravaged Palestinian territory, to see her dying mother. The man in a checkered shirt had the answer: for $100, he could guide her through a Rafah tunnel to the other side.

Palestinians had hoped the scene would improve under President Mohamed Mursi. Months into his term, however, they say little has changed when it comes to getting people or products into Gaza, even while Mursi backs the territory’s leadership. Rafah symbolizes the challenge he faces in reconciling a strategy of championing Gaza to shore up his credentials with awareness that his backing may strengthen militants, jeopardize U.S. support and saddle Egypt with responsibility for Gaza’s 1.7 million people.

“There is a gap between rhetoric and actions,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation research institute. “There’s a lot of bottom-up pressure and we see that reflected in the rhetoric. However, in terms of policy, there’s a great deal of continuity from the Mubarak-era in how Egypt approaches Rafah.”

The dichotomy underscores Egypt’s political reality, with the crossing serving as a test of a foreign policy that may be reviewed under a Nov. 21 cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Europe.

Won’t Abandon You

In a show of support, Mursi dispatched his prime minister, Hisham Qandil, to Gaza less than 48 hours after Israel’s Nov. 14 targeted assassination of the commander of Hamas’s militant wing sparked an eight-day conflict between the two sides. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal later praised Mursi for the visit of the most senior Egyptian official to the Hamas-ruled enclave.

The day after Israel began a campaign that it said was aimed at halting rocket attacks from Gaza and assaults on its soldiers patrolling the border, Mursi posted on his Twitter account: “Oh people of Gaza: You are from us, we are from you, and we will not abandon you.”

Still, he’s stopped short of easing Egypt’s policies in Gaza. People’s movements remain restricted, tunnels are closed and trade hasn’t been formalized as requested by Hamas.

Under the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, the 13-kilometer (8-mile) border with Gaza has been manned by Egyptian guards and a U.S.-led multinational force. Hamas officials monitor their side. Goods don’t enter Gaza through the Rafah border point and are instead shipped through the Kerem Shalom crossing, which Israel controls.

Tunnel Trade

North Sinai’s towns of Rafah, Sheikh Zuwayed and El Arish are home to 40,000 Palestinians, according to Chatham House. Goods worth as much as $700 million, some prohibited by Israel, pass through the tunnels annually, according to the International Crisis Group.

About 4.5 million tons of fuel has entered Gaza from Egypt through the tunnels this year, Hamas’s economy ministry says. That’s followed by building materials. Israel says the ban on construction materials and products it considers dual-use is necessary to prevent Hamas from building bunkers.

About 15,000 rockets have been launched from the Gaza Strip at Israel in the past 11 years, according to the Israeli army. Weapons and militants in North Sinai don’t only pose a threat to Israel. Attacks against Egyptian military and police targets in North Sinai have surged this year and include 15 bombings of a gas pipeline to Israel.

Not Aware

An Aug. 5 raid that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead showed “Egypt is not exactly aware of the magnitude and spread of these groups or their motives,” said Yasser El-Shimy, an International Crisis Group analyst.

While Mursi responded with a military campaign, shutting tunnels and restricting Palestinian travel to Egypt, that hasn’t stopped attacks on strategic targets.

“Militants will remain a challenge for the government, which should prompt a different strategy for Sinai, one that is not limited to security, but that’s also attentive to development,” said Lina Attalah, editor-in-chief of Egypt Independent.

Mistrust of the government by North Sinai’s mostly Bedouin population began under Hosni Mubarak amid police harassment and discrimination and as economic development bypassed the territory. The average per-capita income in North Sinai in 2007-2008 was 8,884 Egyptian pounds ($1,444), 30 percent less than South Sinai and below the national average of 10,246 pounds, according to the Egypt Human Development Report 2010.

While Mursi tries to pacify Egyptians protesting his policies, he can’t lose sight of Gaza’s potential to erupt, said Omar Ashour, an analyst at the U.K.’s University of Exeter.

“The situation is still quite flimsy,” he said. “Any lack of attention to Gaza may make things escalate again.”

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