Defense Update - News Analysis by David Eshel

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Rafah: IDF hunting Smugglers Tunnels
The reports over the recent escalating fighting and loss of innocent lives, in the Rafah sector, on the southern tip of the Palestinian Authority controlled Gaza strip, fail to emphasis the reason for these activities, by the Israeli Army, which it is widely condemned for its brutal conduct.
Military action in densely populated urban environment is hazardous to troops and civilians alike and should be avoided in any military action as far as possible. But in Rafah, the army is left no choice due to political decisions in the past, which have created an impossible tactical situation, in which no army can operate free from unfortunate risks and mistakes.

According to the 1994 signed Gaza-Jericho Agreement, a so-called "Pink Line" was demarkated,along the Egyptian Sinai border to become the " Military Installation Area" under full control of Israel, acting as buffer zone to prevent unauthorized infiltration. This area, clearly marked on Map No.1 in the attached agreement, was signed by all partners and came into effect immediately following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza.

Unfortunately, due almost criminal shortsightedness by the Israeli negotiators, ignoring professional military caution, the "Pink Line" was demarkated stretching 8500 meters from south-west to north-east hugging the Egypt-Israel international border, but with only a 60-100 meter width stretch inside the Israeli territory. Such a ridiculously narrow area, left to IDF control, represents a military nightmare ever since, impossible to defend under any circumstances.

Soon after 1994, Rafa turned into a smugglers paradise, as local clans started digging underground tunnels under the "Pink Line", first serving drug smuggling between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, but later the tunnel network became the main source for gunrunning operations feeding the Intifada. The Rafah tunnels have also become the main source of income to the local family clans, contracting for their construction, paid handsomely by the various Palestinian terror organisations in the Gaza strip.
Those family clans have already become so powerful, that even the Palestinian Authority police have lost control over Rafah, which is now ruled entirely by those local warlords.

Price per tunnel can vary between $ 10,000 to $ 30,000 depending on their size and "sophistication".
Some of the more expensive tunnels include rails for trolleys to transport heavy loads and are connected by intercoms for communications and early warning. In order to evade detection by IDF so-called "tunnel-hunter teams", the tunnels start on the Egyptian side inside houses and end inside refugee camps in Rafah, hidden carefully, sometimes even hidden under children's bedrooms!

Since the outbreak of the present Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli Army has been ordered to stop any infiltration into the Gaza Strip, but, under the circumstances this proved almost "Mission Impossible". Even routine patrols along the "Philadelphi" route became a major operation. Over time, the Palestinians, ignoring the 1994 Agreement, have constructed substantial housing projects, crawling ever slowly into the Israeli controlled 100 meter buffer zone, until in some places only 15-20 meters remain. From these houses, some of which have been turned into fortified positions, heavy fire is conducted on any IDF movement on the road. From time-to-time the army is demolishing some of these buildings for their security, actions which received condemnation by the media.

Sofar, the so-called "Tunnel War" has been won by the Palestinians. Although the army is using some of its most sophisticated equipment for underground detection, for each destroyed tunnel, two new ones are rapidly constructed in the soft sandy ground. Thus, Rafah the " City of Tunnels" has become a major strategic flashpoint in the Intifada.

As long as the tunnels can fuel the Palestinian terror, no end of the violence is in sight. Aware of this the IDF is now planning a new project, under which a 10 meter deep trench, filled with concrete is to be constructed along the entire length of the Philadelphi road, thus effectively blocking any future tunneling work. With the work already in progress, the recent fighting has been over this new flashpoint, to become the critical, almost strategic, element for both sides.