Smuggling tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border
Smuggling tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza borderAbed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

Israel is rapidly approaching the final stages of the war against the Iranian-backed terror organization Hamas as the IDF approaches the town of Rafah located adjacent to the Egyptian border. It will soon begin the expected elimination of the last vestiges of Hamas’s remaining terror forces and their leadership.

Since the Oct 7th massacre of Israeli communities, the IDF operation, the hostages and over five hundred miles of underground terror tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip have been widely reported by the international media.

And Egypt's role? To a large extent, the international media have ignored Egypt’s role over the past two decades in allowing Hamas to build an extensive underground tunnel system between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian territory in the Sinai Peninsula.

Military analysts have estimated that in the Rafah border town alone there are hundreds of tunnels, some wide enough to allow transport vehicles to pass thru from Egyptian territory into the Gaza Strip, supposedly clandestinely. Egypt was silently complicit and contributed to Hamas’ military build-up, aiding Hamas in becoming a strategic threat for the State of Israel.

So as the Egyptian elephant in the room becomes more and more visible, questions have been raised in recent weeks. Despite Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repetitive claim that Cairo is playing a very positive role in de-escalating the Gaza crisis, Hamas would not have been able to pose a threat to the State of Israel without the implicit and unrestricted approval of the Egyptian Army and Egypt’s political leadership.

Hamas smuggled weapons, ammunition/missiles, fuel, explosives, and so forth through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border in the run-up to its October 7 attack and massacre of Israeli’s living in border towns. The Hamas terrorists reportedly carried the armaments below the Philadelphi Route, a narrow land corridor that separates Egypt territory from the Gaza Strip.

Egypt’s claim to de-escalate and bring an end to the war would be more credible had they neutralized the tunnels that provided a critical artery for supplying weapons to the Iranian-backed Hamas terror organizations in Gaza.

Egypt and Israel signed a historic peace agreement in March 1979 to end hostilities and normalize relations. It marked the first treaty of its kind between an Arab country and Israel. The peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is viewed as having reshaped the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict for the better.

Israel wanted to secure its Southern border and diminish the potential military threat by the region’s largest and most powerful Arab country. Egypt wanted to restore its sovereignty over the Sinai Peninsula, which it lost in the 1967 Six-Day War. It also wanted to redirect resources from military spending to strengthen its economy.

In 2018, the two countries signed a deal for Israeli gas exports to Egypt for 10 years, worth US$15 billion. This was followed by the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum in Cairo with other regional partners. Israel’s gas exports are crucial for Egypt’s economy. They also support Egypt’s aspiration to become a regional energy hub.

Lastly, Egypt wanted to strengthen its ties with the United States, by being at peace with its ally, Israel. With the bilateral agreements between Egypt and Israel having so many positive and strategic benefits for the Egyptian government, Hamas’ military build-up with Egypt’s tacit approval seems to be counter-intuitive and clearly against the national interests of Egypt.

Although Egypt is a poor country, with a low GDP per capita rating, with tens of millions of Egyptians forced to live in cemeteries or boxes as a substitute for a home; Egypt has built up the strongest army among the Arab nations of the Middle East with over: 5,000 tanks, hundreds of advanced fighter warplanes and helicopters, over 100 naval vessels and submarines, and an estimated one million soldiers in uniform.

A study by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies reported that Egypt's air force has undergone the most significant modernization of any military in the Arab world. "From the point of view of weapon systems," the author concluded, "the military-technological gap between the Egyptian and Israeli Air Forces is gradually narrowing." In addition, the “Egyptian Air Force’s increasing confidence is reflected in its acquisition of aircraft for deep-penetration strikes into enemy territory.” Egypt now has some of the most sophisticated U.S.-made weapons, including Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter planes, and Apache attack helicopters. A critical footnote to Egypt’s military buildup;

Western intelligence agencies are aware of and have leaked details that Israel - the country Egypt signed a peace treaty with - is the "enemy" in all of Egypt's war games.

Israel’s past experience with Arab strategic partners such as Iran during the Shah era, and Turkey before the Erdogan regime, leave Israel no choice but to carefully monitor Egypt's buildup. The United States has long turned a blind eye to Iranian smuggling through Egypt to arm, equip, and train Hamas. More worrying to Israel’s military planners has been the United States turning a blind eye to Egypt’s’ clandestine construction of as many as 12 major tunnels under the Suez canal all pointing towards Israel.

Egyptian forces have staged large-scale military training exercises which included simulated operations crossing into the Sinai using these underground tunnels against an “unnamed adversary to the east”(meaning Israel).

Israel can no longer ignore the astounding armament rate of the Egyptian army, which has procured the very best offensive weaponry from the West in recent years. One Israeli military analyst expressed an assessment that leaves no doubt; "One day, all of it will be turned against us."

Egypt has amassed a substantial offensive military capability in recent years that can no longer be ignored by Israel. Although Egypt has a formal peace agreement with Israel, reaffirming Egypt as Israel’s strategic partner should start with the Egyptians shutting down completely the illicit smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. This means ending any possibility that Hamas can re-arm and likewise ensure that Hamas leaders use those tunnels as an escape hatch to avoid the consequences of their atrocities on Oct 7.

Should Egypt’s leaders including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s refrain from these necessary actions, the prospect for continued stable relations with Israel would diminish substantially.

Ron Jagergrew up in the South Bronx of New York City, making Aliyah in 1980. Served for 25 years in the IDF as a Mental Health Field Officer in operational units. Prior to retiring was Commander of the Central Psychiatric Clinic for Reserve Solders at Tel-Hashomer. Since retiring has been involved in strategic consultancy to NGO's and communities in the Gaza Envelope on resiliency projects to assist first responders and communities. Ron has written numerous articles for outlets in Israel and abroad focusing on Israel and the Jewish world.

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