Following a Palestinian attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards, the newly formed government of Mohamed Mursi has announced that Egypt will shut down the smuggling tunnels from Egypt into the Gaza Strip that Israel has tried to close for years. The tunnels have been used to smuggle consumer goods, food, fuel, building supplies and weapons from Egypt into Gaza. Some have been reported to be large enough to drive trucks through. This weekend, as the victims of the attack were being buried, the government was bringing in earth-moving equipment to collapse the tunnels.
The government has also begun dealing with a spread of unauthorized settlement in the Sinai Peninsula that has grown in the past 18 months since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. There have been concerns expressed that the government of Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who won the presidency in a tightly contested election, would not honor decades-old security agreements with Israel. The instability in the governance of Egypt allowed pro-Gaza, anti-Israeli persons to settle in the Sinai and start planning incursions into Israel. For the most part, the Sinai Peninsula like the southern Negev Desert is a giant sandbox with little human presence. There are Israeli towns near the border with Egypt, but virtually no regular Egyptian settlements on the map, no matter how close you zoom in.
Without the tunnels, the people of Gaza will suffer. It is through these tunnels that they have received goods they cannot get legally, including building materials. Egypt’s closing of the tunnels, as well as closure of the Rafah border crossing, stands to hurt Hamas, who not only control the Gaza Strip, but are a terrorist group. It was easy for Hamas to retain control when they attacked Israel, but attacking Egyptians and having Gazans suffer for it is not as easy to defend.
The swiftness of response from the Mursi government is probably reassuring to both the Egyptian military and the West, who have both been very wary of the election of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mursi has taken on an unusual task. He must fulfill the platform and philosophy of his party while proving that the party is not extremist. It’s a bit of a surprise for people to realize that shutting down the anti-Israel groups and the Gaza tunnels does both for Mursi.