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Egyptian Waterway Stirs Tensions with Gaza

Egypt's new waterway near Gaza's border is creating tension between Hamas and Egypt's government
A Palestinian man works in a tunnel flooded with seawater by the Egyptian army, in Rafah, southern Gaza, 1 October 2015. Photo Abed Rahim Khatib

The inauguration on September 17, 2015 of a waterway along Egypt’s border with Gaza has aggravated tensions between the Egyptian government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Gaza’s ruling Hamas party. The waterway is part of a comprehensive strategy Egypt has pursued for three years aimed at destroying the tunnels that run below the divided city of Rafah. The Egyptian government claims that the tunnels are used to smuggle weapons and ammunition from the Gaza Strip to jihadist movements fighting the Egyptian army in Sinai. The Egyptian government has also announced that it will populate the waterway with crocodiles in a further effort to thwart attempts to cross it.

Palestinian politicians and experts have warned that opening the waterway is tantamount to a siege on Gaza and will lead to “an economic and environmental tragedy” in the coastal enclave. Rafah Mayor Subhi Abu Radwan said that the waterway aims “to tighten the noose on the Strip” and is “a violation of all international conventions and norms”.

In a press conference, Mazin al-Banna, deputy head of the Palestinian Water Authority, noted that pumping large amounts of salt water along the border will “contaminate the joint underground water sources and threaten water and food security in the Gaza Strip.” He expressed surprise at the Egyptian authorities’ “excuse” of using the waterway to close the tunnels, saying that most of the tunnels have already been destroyed.

The majority of Palestinian factions have criticized the Egyptian project, with Hamas political bureau member Ziyad al-Zaza calling it “a flagrant infringement on neighbouring territory” and “part of a plot hatched by Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to impose more restrictions on Gaza and blackmail it to achieve political gains.” He warned that “the grave consequences” of building the waterway will have a negative impact on both Egypt and Gaza, but added that it will not prompt Hamas to take any negative action against Egypt.

Across the border, el-Sisi supporters celebrated the inauguration of the waterway as a means to tighten the grip on Hamas, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and has been designated by Egypt as a terrorist organization.

“A Water Shock”

Ahmad Haridi Mohammad, a commentator for the pro-el-Sisi Al-Usbu weekly newspaper, wrote that Hamas will use the tunnels for smuggling operations worth billions of dollars. He called the waterway “a water shock” that is part of the war Cairo is waging on “terrorist” groups in Sinai and Gaza.

Egypt has thus far sought to block the tunnels by demolishing thousands of houses on the Egyptian side of Rafah and establishing a buffer zone that will prevent any new tunnels from being built. A Human Rights Watch report said that this tactic has destroyed entire neighbourhoods and large areas of agricultural land, displacing 3,000 Egyptian families and depriving them of their livelihood. The report continued that the authorities “have not given the residents of these houses prior warning, not even shortly before the demolishment operations. Also, the authorities have not provided these citizens with temporary lodging and have given them inadequate compensations for their destroyed houses.”

Neither has the Egyptian government provided any evidence to prove that jihadists in Sinai received military assistance from Gaza, according to the report. It also questioned why Egypt has not employed advanced technology to detect the tunnels, warning that Cairo’s measures will be counterproductive because “the reckless policies in confronting jihadists will cause the citizens to stand up to their government.”

Plans for the Egyptian waterway were disclosed following heightened tensions between Egypt and Hamas when the latter accused the Egyptian army of kidnapping four of its members at the Rafah crossing as they tried to make their way to Cairo International Airport in August 2015.

Meanwhile, Israeli sources claimed that the main reasons behind the failure of Tony Blair, former British prime minister and former envoy of the International Quartet committee, to reach a long-term agreement between Hamas and Israel was el-Sisi’s rejection of such agreement in the first place. Israeli newspaper Maariv cited security sources in Tel Aviv as saying that Egypt and the Palestinian Authority have concerns that any truce agreement would bolster Hamas’ support in the Gaza Strip. The newspaper noted that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu takes into consideration Cairo’s stance given the common interests between the two sides.

Other Israelis believe that Egypt’s insistence on tightening the siege on Gaza would affect the already fragile agreement between Hamas and Israel. Avi Sakharov, an Israeli commentator on Arab and Palestinian affairs for the Walla! news website, said that although Hamas and Israel are keen to maintain calm, Egypt’s blockade of Gaza, which has led to an unprecedented economic deterioration there, may trigger a new round of confrontations between the two sides.

A number of Israeli military officials have even cast doubt on Egypt’s security policy in Sinai. Maariv quoted sources at the Southern Region Command as saying that the success of jihadist groups in attacking Egyptian army posts and inflicting human losses prove that the army is weak. The sources added that the Egyptian army now avoids direct confrontation with jihadist groups in large swathes of Sinai, limiting their operations to airstrikes. The sources also predicted that Israel will “bear the consequences” of Egyptian military failures in Sinai, stressing that jihadists may try to attack Israel if confrontations with the Egyptian army wind down or cease entirely.