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Israel retreats from claims that Egypt obeyed request to flood Gaza tunnels
A tunnel beneath the Gaza Strip - Courtesy: S. Kishawi
 

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinetz’s remarks that Egypt was acting to a “certain extent at Israel’s request” by flooding the underground tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip this weekend provoked a near-frenzy in both local and international media, although officials on both sides are remaining quiet on the matter.

According to the Jerusalem-based newspaper Times of Israel, Steinetz made the comments on Saturday during a cultural event in the town of Beersheba. The minister, a member of Israel’s ruling Likud party, claimed the tunnels were being rebuilt by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic organization that governs the enclave. Security cooperation between Israel and Egypt to combat Hamas is now “better than ever,” Steinetz averred.

Egyptian officials have not claimed responsibility for Friday’s flooding of the tunnels, nor have they responded to Steinetz’s remarks.

But the statements were decried in international media outlets as a misstep that goes against an “unwritten rule” in Israeli foreign relations to keep cooperation with Arab governments quiet. “He said something that shouldn’t be said in so many words,” Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt told the London-based newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

According to the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), the move has angered Israeli defense officials.

But Steinetz’s camp claims his statements were misinterpreted.

The impression Steinetz’s remarks created, “as though the Egyptian campaign against the tunnels is a result of an Israeli request, is wrong and does not reflect reality,” his spokesperson told AFP.

In response to Steinetz’s statements, a number of Egyptian media sources are quoting an article by Israeli analyst Yoni Ben-Menachem published in the Tel Aviv-based private newspaper Maariv.

Ben-Menachem contends Steinetz’s “misstep” may have done great harm, as the statements could damage the growing relations and security coordination that has developed between the two countries to combat a “shared threat” from Hamas. He claimed Steinitz was aiming to boost his own image by attempting to show he possessed insider knowledge of Israel’s security operations.

The privately owned news site Masr al-Arabia pointed to a recent spike in statements lauding Egypt in Israeli publications and social media accounts, with comments praising President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s strength and decisiveness in flooding the tunnels. The article also cautioned that Steinetz’s statements could play into the hands of Egypt’s opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. The article referenced an earlier piece by the London-based publication Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, in which Sisi was painted as a hypocrite for having sent Egyptian soldiers to die in Sinai for a war serving Israeli interests.

According to a report by the privately owned daily newspaper Al-Wafd, Egypt’s recent commercial and military deals with Russia, China and France — as well as the discovery of the Zohr gas field in the Mediterranean — have sparked Israeli fears regarding Egypt’s growing strength. These concerns could have contributed to Steinetz’s “false” statements, Al-Wafd claimed.

Since September 2015, Egypt has been gradually pumping sea water into the underground tunnels linking Gaza with the Sinai Peninsula in an effort to reduce what it calls terrorist activity along the border. Palestinian security officials told the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) that the operations were part of an effort to prevent cross-border smuggling by Islamist militants to and from the strip.

Flooding the tunnels purportedly aims to slow the arms flow between Egypt and Palestine, but it has also caused many problems for those living in Gaza border towns. Salt water has not only waterlogged the land above the tunnels, but also poses a threat to crops and local health, according to Palestinian officials.

The first major crackdown took place in 2013, with the military bombing and destroying the vast majority of the tunnel systems. Egyptian border officials claimed that 1,055 smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai were destroyed after January 2011, with later reports suggesting that more than 1,400 have been demolished in total.

Battles with militant groups in northern Sinai led to Egypt’s decision to shut down the tunnels entirely in September 2015. The Egyptian government said it feared a reversal in the direction of the arms flow, resulting in militant groups in Egypt receiving weapons from Gaza.

Egypt openly claimed responsibility for the September 2015 sinking of the tunnels, with Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid stating in October 2015 that the operation was Egypt’s “sovereign right and international duty.”

The flooding followed the creation of a “buffer zone” by Egypt along its border with Gaza. After a major attack on Egyptian security forces in October 2014 by the Islamic State-affiliated militant group Province of Sinai, former Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb ordered the clearing of a 79-km area along Egypt’s border with Gaza.

The clearing led to the demolition of over 3,000 civilian residences and the eviction of approximately 3,200 families, said a report released in September 2015 by Human Rights Watch. The evicted families were offered compensation, which varied according to the size of the house.

The buffer zone is planned to eventually extend along the entire length of the 13,800-meter border, according to official statements. It will be 500 meters wide, with a canal measured at 30 meters deep and wide to prevent further smuggling between Sinai and the Gaza Strip.

In November 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas discussed the issue of border tunnels with Sisi. Following the talks, Abbas stated in a meeting with reporters that the tunnels were illegal, and he would support any measures taken by Egypt to close them.

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