From BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 60, January 22, 2009, by Efraim Inbar* and Mordechai Kedar**:
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Conventional wisdom posits that Egypt must and will play a central role in halting the smuggling of weapons from Sinai to Gaza. Yet this is unlikely – for strategic, political and Egyptian domestic reasons. Egypt does not mind if Hamas bleeds Israel a little; it gains domestically by indirectly aiding Hamas; gains internationally by playing a mediating role (in a conflict which it helps maintain on a "low flame"); and is incapable of stopping the Sinai Bedouins from continuing as the main weapons smugglers into Gaza. Thus, Israel would be imprudent to rely on Egypt to end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
The massive and continuous smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Egypt via the Sinai ... has to be tackled in order to prevent escalation in the future. Stopping the transfer of weapons to Hamas requires significant Egyptian cooperation and action, says conventional wisdom; and in the negotiations towards this week's ceasefire, Egypt indicated it would play such an expanded role.
Indeed, one of the clear winners of this conflict seems to be Egypt, whose mediating role received plaudits all around. Many heads of state jaunted off to meet President Mubarak, along with Israeli emissaries, underscoring the importance of Egypt in securing an end to the crisis in Gaza. Egypt also holds the keys to the Rafah Crossing into Gaza, whose opening is demanded by Hamas.
However, the expectation that Egypt will put an end to the traffic in the tunnels under the Egyptian-Gaza border is not realistic – for strategic, political and domestic reasons.
At the strategic level, Egypt sees Israel as a competitor in the quest for hegemony in the Middle East, and has for years turned a blind eye to the arming of Hamas via the tunnels. Simply put, it had, and still has, an interest in bleeding Israel. In contrast to its rhetoric, Egypt is not interested in a resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict that will free Israel from an immense security burden and will allow the Jewish state to become even stronger than it is nowadays.
Power politics and balance-of-power is the prism through which the Egyptian leadership views the region. The continuation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on a "low flame" serves best the Egyptian interest of keeping Israel not-too-strong and engaged in a conflict with the Palestinians.
Moreover, the "low flames" in Gaza and elsewhere in the Palestinian arena maintain an important role for Egypt as a "moderate leader" in the eyes of the international community, particularly in Washington.
Egyptian behavior is intriguing and cunning. After all, the development of "Hamastan" in Gaza poses a danger to Egypt too, since part of the weaponry going to Gaza could be redirected for the Moslem Brotherhood along the Nile; and Hamas is a role model for Egypt's Islamists. Similarly, the growing role of Iran in arming, training and financing the Hamas is a source of concern for the Egyptian regime.
Nevertheless, Egypt appears to have reached the conclusions that it cannot prevent Hamas rule in Gaza, and that Hamas' continuing rule actually is useful both against Israel and at home.
Indeed, Israel and Egypt both seem to have reconciled themselves to a long-term Hamas government in Gaza. Neither country can do much about it, although both prefer to see Hamas weakened. Egypt does not want to fan "high flames," while Israel needs Hamas to understand that Israel best be left alone. To a great extent, the international community also accepts the fragmentation of the Palestinian polity, and is not actively pursuing the goal of bringing Gaza under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
The two-faced policy being pursued by the Mubarak administration also serves a useful purpose in domestic Egyptian politics. In contrast to Europeans and other foreigners, Egyptian citizens easily recognize and comprehend their government's double-dealing. Everybody in Cairo understands that the government is facilitating the arming of Hamas; and turning a blind eye to the tunnels weakens the argument of the Islamic opposition that the government is cooperating with the Zionists. Moreover, curbing the traffic in the tunnels would worsen the economic situation in Gaza. Pictures of suffering in Gaza or of Palestinians climbing the fences to get into Egypt only help the Islamist opposition.
Realities in the Sinai
Finally, Egypt's double game is also result of a complex reality in the Sinai Peninsula. As with other Third World states, the Egyptian government is not fully in control of its territory. Thus, an international agreement on ending arms smuggling from Sinai into Gaza will face considerable problems of implementation, even if the Egyptian regime wants it to happen.
Notably, most of the smuggling into Gaza is led by Egyptian Bedouins who live in the northern Sinai. These tribes do not speak Egyptian Arabic, they are not really an integral part of Egyptian culture and society, and they do not subscribe to Egyptian political ethos. They make a living by smuggling women and drugs to Israel, as well as arms, ammunition, and missiles to the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian attempts to extend law and order to Bedouin areas have met armed resistance. Every time the Egyptian regime attempts to curtail the Bedouin smuggling activities, they carry out a terrorist attack on a Sinai resort, as has happened in Taba, Sharm el-Sheikh (twice), Nueiba, and Ras al-Satan. Such attacks negatively influence tourism to Egypt, an important source of income, and seem to be an effective way of "convincing" the Cairo authorities to live and let live.
Bribery, an important element in the Egyptian ways of doing business, also facilitates the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. Low-paid Egyptian officials in Sinai can hardly resist hefty bribes. A one-hundred-dollar bill does wonders with an Egyptian police officer at a Sinai roadblock who intercepts a truck packed with "pipes." The likelihood that policemen at Egyptian checkpoints will stop taking bribes from trucks transferring arms to Gaza is very low – unless the Egyptian government decides to heavily punish such behavior. Only execution of smugglers could have a deterring effect, but such a determined Egyptian government behavior is also unlikely.
Another hindering factor in any attempt to stop smuggling is the bureaucratic culture of Egypt. The cumbersome Egyptian bureaucracy is hardly effective. Even presidential decisions are watered-down as they pass through the ranks of the administration. Thus the chance that a presidential decision on a total curb in smuggling would be fully implemented at Sinai checkpoints remains slim. This is Egypt.
To illustrate the point: Several weeks ago, the Palestinians published a report that the Egyptians had started to seriously combat the smuggling tunnels between the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of Rafah. The Egyptians initiated an inquiry to discover "who" suddenly became so motivated, and discovered that it was an Egyptian official who did not receive a big enough reward from the tunnel operators and decided to teach them a lesson! The Egyptians immediately found a different posting for this hyperactive official.
Despite the current Egyptian anger at Hamas and the international prodding of Egypt to terminate the traffic in the tunnels from its territory into Gaza, a drastic change in Egyptian border control performance along its border with Gaza is unlikely. Therefore, it would be imprudent of Israel to rely on the Egyptians to significantly end weapons smuggling into Gaza.
This means that Israel will continue to face a significant Gaza security challenge, despite Operation Cast Lead. An important policy implication of this reality is that Israel must maintain freedom of action to bomb tunnels along the Philadelphi Corridor, or to destroy them by ground operations. This must be made crystal-clear to friends and foes alike.
*Efraim Inbar is professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.
**Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a lecturer in Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Arabic and a research associate at the BESA Center.