The Philadelphi corridor is a narrow stretch of sand, ten kilometers long and about a hundred meters wide, separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces patrol its length in a zone established and defined by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord

The Philadelphi corridor is a narrow stretch of sand, ten kilometers long and about a hundred meters wide, separating Egypt from the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces patrol its length in a zone established and defined by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.[1] On May 12, 2004, five Israeli soldiers were killed in the corridor near the Gazan city of Rafah as they prepared to destroy a Palestinian smuggling tunnel. Palestinians fired a rocket-propelled grenade at their armored personnel carrier, which contained a ton of explosive charges. The blast that killed the soldiers shook Rafah, and marked the beginning of Operation Rainbow, the biggest Israeli military operation against the Palestinian smuggling consortium since the Israeli-Palestinian war began in September 2000. In a few days of stormy street-to-street fighting, Israeli forces uncovered and destroyed three tunnels and killed forty Palestinian gunmen. Over fifty buildings were damaged or destroyed.[2] The fighting made front pages around the world.

It was not only Operation Rainbow that focused world attention on the Philadelphi corridor. In the spring of 2004, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon put forward his disengagement plan, envisioning a unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza, including Jewish settlements. The plan immediately raised many questions. Would Israeli forces leave the Philadelphi corridor? What were the risks of staying? What were the risks of leaving? Would remaining troops be vulnerable? If all troops left, what would prevent wholesale smuggling of weaponry from Egypt to Gaza? What should be the role of Egypt? As the disengagement plan took shape, the future of the Philadelphi corridor became a key issue—and a major uncertainty.

The term "smuggling" does not do justice to the problem of the Philadelphi corridor, and indeed, of the entire length of the Egyptian-Israeli border. Of course, some of the cross-border smuggling, overland or by tunnel, involves contraband and drugs—economic smuggling that occurs across all borders (and all of Israel's borders). But in Gaza, this smuggling has a strategic dimension. It involves the illegal importation into Gaza of significant quantities of arms and materiel, on a scale sufficient to turn Gaza into launching pad for ever-deeper attacks against Israel proper. Armed militias, awash with illegal weapons, could also undermine the balance of forces within Gaza itself, creating a situation of near-chaos and dangerous spirals of terrorist attacks and reprisals.

But however worrisome these prospects, there is one that eclipses them all. Given the position of Gaza, sandwiched between Israel and Egypt, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which these events could produce international crises of the first order. Smuggling and infiltration have the potential to endanger the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord and threaten the stability of the whole region. This might be even more likely in certain post-disengagement scenarios, in which Egypt would assume responsibility for the border area or the Gaza Strip itself.

This article will outline the scale of the problem, consider its recent evolution, establish its political context, and ask what can be done to neutralize it.

A Border Breached

Israel shares roughly 240 kilometers of land border with Egypt, stretching from the Gaza Strip to the Red Sea. In addition, Israel controls the ten-kilometer stretch of border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. For four of these kilometers, the border runs through the densely populated city of Rafah and its environs. The city of Rafah lies on both sides of the line, in Egypt and the Gaza Strip. In this narrow border corridor, there are no Israeli settlements, and the Israeli right to hold it (subject to final determination of the status of the region) is established in the peace treaty with Egypt of 1979, as well as in the Oslo agreements. In accordance with the interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the "Military Installation Area" of Rafah, adjacent to the border with Egypt, falls under Israeli security and civilian responsibility.[3]

Three forms of smuggling take place in this area. First, there is smuggling by sea, mainly via the Mediterranean (but also via the Red Sea). Second, there is underground tunnel smuggling, mainly along the most populated four kilometers of border that run through Rafah. Third, there is surface smuggling along the entire 240 kilometers of open desert terrain stretching between the Rafah region and the Israeli city of Eilat. All three operational problems oblige the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to maintain a highly synchronized and concentrated military effort, incorporating intelligence, ground forces, navy, and air force, all orchestrated by the IDF Southern Command.

Fundamentally, two different border penetration systems have been operating simultaneously. The first is the Palestinian terrorism support system, which feeds into Gaza. The second is the criminal smuggling-infiltration system, which feeds into Israel.

Terrorism support system. This system is powered mainly by two factors: ideology and money. It operates chiefly in the divided city of Rafah.[4]

A few strong families, such as the Astal and Sha'ir families of Palestinian Rafah, have been in the tunneling business for many years. Ideologically, they are enthusiastic supporters of the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel. In practice, this is also their main source of income. They have invested copious energy, time, and money in establishing and maintaining a tunnel network system between the Palestinian and Egyptian sides of Rafah city. They provide tunneling and smuggling services for fixed prices per operation, which may include secreting people illegally between Gaza and Egypt, and supplying ammunition and other materiel to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Palestinian Authority (PA). (In the case of the PA, they deal either with formal representatives or with informal proxies such as the Rafah Fatah-Tanzim movement).

It is a huge business. The numbers suggest its scale: the IDF discovered and destroyed ninety-four tunnels in the Rafah region in the period from September 29, 2000 to January 1, 2004.[5] Tunnel smuggling is estimated to be the main source of income for the Rafah region, and local Palestinians desperately need to keep the smuggling tunnels operational. When intensive Israeli military activity threatens the smuggling business, the population fights back aggressively. This explains the intensity of Palestinian attacks on IDF forces and positions and the seemingly endless Palestinian determination to rebuild and bypass every Israeli attempt to block or blow up a tunnel.

The intensity of the Palestinian violence is reflected in the sheer volume of attacks, in the form of small-arms fire, sniping, anti-tank weapon fire, hand-grenade throwing, mortar fire, and detonation of huge explosive charges. (On occasion, explosives have been packed into tunnels built for this purpose and then detonated beneath Israeli patrol vehicles or outposts).[6] The intensity of the fighting is expressed also by the number of casualties. Four Israelis were killed in various terrorist attacks in this region, and over thirty Israeli soldiers have been wounded.[7]

There is another side to this equation: a parallel Egyptian mechanism for smuggling and infiltration. Strong underground, illegal groups operate from Egyptian Rafah in tandem with the Palestinian side. Every tunnel has two openings: one on the Palestinian side, the other on the Egyptian side. Moreover, the smuggling is not a single, detached activity that occurs in Egyptian Rafah alone; after all, the items smuggled (weapons, explosives, etc.) make their way to the border region through Egyptian territory. It is logical to assume the existence of a smuggling network spread out over Sinai and the Nile delta, supported and financed by the kingpins of Palestinian Rafah.

Israeli-Egyptian smuggling. A few criminal mafia gangs run the operations of mass smuggling and infiltration from Egypt directly into Israel. The phenomenon is driven and motivated mainly by money and black-market demand. It constitutes a major channel for the illegal transfer of drugs and cheap labor to criminal elements catering to a widespread demand inside Israel. In 2002 alone, signs of over 400 incidents of smuggling were detected along the Israeli-Egyptian border. Approximately 3,000 people crossed into Israel illegally, and over fifty tons of narcotics, mainly locally produced marijuana and hashish, entered Israel from the Sinai Peninsula.[8]

The system has been described in the testimonies of numerous illegal workers, arrested and questioned by Israeli police.[9] In their home countries, such as Russia, Turkey, Romania, and Moldavia, they were persuaded to travel to Israel via Egypt. They buy tickets, usually to Cairo International airport, and are then escorted by Egyptian smugglers across the Suez Canal, through the Sinai Peninsula via the few tarmac roads, and delivered into the hands of Israeli smugglers near the border, usually in a well-prepared and orchestrated nighttime operation of the two smuggler gangs. The narcotics make their way into Israel via the same route.[10]

But this network services not only illegal workers and drug smugglers. In the year 2002, it facilitated the infiltration of six terrorist groups from Sinai into Israel.

Egypt's Game

The smuggling and infiltration, as conducted by the Palestinians, have clear strategic implications. Criminal elements in Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian territories are acting in their own self-interest. But their efforts constitute a threat to the security and well-being of the state of Israel. The infiltration of weapons and infiltrators fuels the activity of terrorist groups. The smuggling of narcotics and illegal workers damages Israeli society and the economy. Smuggling and infiltration represent indirect support for the Palestinian terror campaign against Israel. Were these activities to go unchecked, they could deliver a body blow to the morale, economy, and social fabric of the state of Israel.

But the smuggling poses a more profound strategic danger. It is undermining the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, which are the principal political achievement of Israeli conventional and non-conventional military prowess.

Here it is appropriate to recall Article Three of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of March 1979:

Each Party undertakes to ensure that acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, or violence do not originate from and are not committed from within its territory, or by any forces subject to its control or by any other forces stationed on its territory, against the population, citizens or property of the other Party. Each Party also undertakes to refrain from organizing, instigating, inciting, assisting or participating in acts or threats of belligerency, hostility, subversion or violence against the other Party, anywhere, and undertakes to ensure that perpetrators of such acts are brought to justice.[11]

Considering the scale of one-way smuggling and infiltration and its serious implications for Israel, they must be viewed as a clear violation of the letter and spirit of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.

Needless to say, stability between Israel and Egypt is hugely important. Although their relationship has not moved beyond a cold peace over the last twenty-five years, the accord has had major benefits. It limited the cycle of violence and hostility between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It eliminated the threat of direct Israeli-Egyptian military confrontation. And it enabled Egypt to become Washington's strategic partner. In short, it has been regarded by Israel and Egypt as a prime strategic asset, which is why both states have continued to abide by it.

In this light, Egypt's border policies have represented a dangerous gamble. There is no question that the smuggling and infiltration rely on a powerful support mechanism operating on Egyptian soil. This mechanism is driven by supply and demand, but it depends on a considerable measure of official acquiescence. While the PA controls the Palestinian city of Rafah, and every entry of IDF forces into the city sparks a battle, the Egyptian city of Rafah is under the complete control of the sovereign state of Egypt. Egyptian security forces in the city face no armed opposition. The rest of the Sinai Peninsula is sparsely populated and characterized by desert terrain and very few passable routes leading to the border area from the Suez Canal and Sharm ash-Sheikh Airport. Militarily, the Sinai Peninsula is easy to control, and the Egyptian authorities could obtain better operational results—if they so wished.

The problem is that they don't. Official Egypt identifies with the Palestinian struggle for an independent state. And it tolerates just one form of grassroots activism: expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians. Tolerance for smuggling and infiltration, like anti-Israel demonstrations in Cairo and incitement in the media, appears to be designed to relieve some of the pressure exerted by anti-Israeli public opinion in Egypt. In January 1999, Tal'at Muslim, a retired Egyptian brigadier-general, said this in an interview:

The resistance movements are the primary effective powers in the Arab-Israeli dispute, which uphold the full rights of the Palestinian people.[12]

These kinds of statements suggest a willingness, at the highest levels, to tolerate acts of solidarity with this "resistance"—including cross-border smuggling.

And here enters the other factor: Egypt's Islamist movement. It is well known that Egypt's Islamists, in the past, have extended direct assistance to the Palestinians at crucial moments in the conflict. Most famously, the Egyptian Muslim Brethren sent armed units across the border to fight the new state of Israel in 1948-49. Now there is growing evidence that the smuggling-infiltration network operating from Egyptian territory against Israel is linked at some level to Egyptian Islamist groups. There are Egyptian Islamists who see the border area, and Gaza in particular, as a mini-Afghanistan—a point of entry and vector for opening another Islamist front against infidel occupiers. Right now, this cannot take the form of armed volunteers, as in Afghanistan in the 1990s and Iraq today. But there is no impediment to smuggling and infiltration, which could be expanded into more substantial involvement in post-Mubarak circumstances. In the meantime, the smuggling itself is eroding the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord, which has always been a prime Islamist objective.

Informally, the Egyptians have signaled that the moment the Israeli-Palestinian issue is resolved, smuggling and infiltration will be dramatically reduced. The problem, they claim, is driven by the conflict itself—and the occupation. But this notion is wholly mistaken. Not only does the smuggling have a strong economic incentive, but it is also linked to ideological groups that have far-reaching objectives that reject the authority of the Egyptian government and the PA, and that would regard any progress toward peace as a trigger for even more intensive efforts against it. From the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in October 1981, to horrific acts of terror such as the 1997 murder of fifty-eight tourists in Luxor, the regime has demonstrated its inability to eradicate this Islamist threat.[13] That the regime would succeed, precisely on Egypt's border with Israel, seems very unlikely.

Toward Disengagement

This article suggests two levels of dealing with smuggling and infiltration, regardless of the disengagement plan: the operational and the strategic.

On the operational level, the common goal of Israel and Egypt should be the 100-percent prevention of smuggling and infiltration from Egypt to Israel. The two partners to the peace treaty should tackle this problem both independently and jointly. This entails better intelligence gathering, primarily at the operational and tactical level; improvements in operational methodology and technology; and enhanced Israeli-Egyptian coordination and cooperation.

On the Israeli side, much has been published about far-reaching measures that Israel has implemented in the border area.[14] On the Egyptian side, the prime need is to extend operations beyond the narrow strip near the Israeli-Egyptian border so as to cover the country. The objective must be to deal with the perpetrators' centers of activity and their multiple connections with Islamist militants.

On the strategic level, the issue has to be placed in its proper context: not as a matter of simple "smuggling" but as another front in the global war on terror. The United States must make clear that the present situation on the Egyptian-Israeli border is potentially as dangerous as the situation on the Afghan-Pakistani border, and that Egypt bears responsibility for bringing order to this zone, lest it become the de facto province of international terrorists. The United States must make it clear that the present Egyptian policy, allowing smuggling and infiltration as a release valve for public sympathy for the Palestinian armed struggle, is itself a concession to global terrorism.

At some point, perhaps sooner than later, Israel will implement Prime Minister Sharon's disengagement plan to remove all Israeli settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip. How much Egyptian involvement in the Israeli disengagement plan is needed? How can disengagement be implemented so as to weaken rather than strengthen the Islamist militants in the Gaza Strip and Egypt?

It should be recalled that the Gaza Strip was effectively a part of Egypt until the Six-Day War of June 1967. The Camp David agreement of September 17, 1978, between Egypt and Israel, was predicated from the Israeli side on no return to the status quo ante in Sinai or Gaza.[15] Israel wished to confine the Egyptian army to the Suez Canal zone and to demilitarize the Sinai, as a way to reduce the daily friction that had led to war in the past. Should Israel, in the framework of its disengagement from Gaza, discard this past preference in favor of a stronger Egyptian military role? Broadly speaking, there are three different options for Egyptian involvement in the Israeli disengagement plan.

High-level involvement. In this scenario, Egypt would return in part to its pre-1967 role as an occupier of Gaza. It would assume full responsibility over the Gaza Strip for a temporary period. Egypt would fully control the Philadelphi corridor and deploy one infantry division inside the Gaza Strip, i.e., about 15,000 Egyptian soldiers, to support Palestinian police efforts to counter Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other militias. While some believe that an Egyptian presence could forestall chaos, the possibility of actual clashes between Egypt and Israel is highest in this scenario. Any Israeli reprisal against Palestinian terrorism could put the IDF in conflict with Egyptian forces. It is also likely that the smuggling would flourish.

Medium-level involvement. In this scenario, Egypt alone would control the Philadelphi corridor, but it would not introduce troops into the Gaza Strip. The main effect of Egyptian control of the corridor would be to open it to intensive commercial traffic, effectively integrating the Gazan economy with Egypt's. Egypt would give the Palestinians robust police coaching and administrative assistance. But in the absence of foreign forces, Palestinians would enjoy a greater sense of independence. In this scenario, however, the smuggling would reach epic proportions, and nothing would impede Egyptian Islamists from extending every conceivable support to their Palestinian allies. The possibility of Israeli-Egyptian physical conflict would be medium to high.

Low-level involvement. In this scenario, Israel would continue to hold the Philadelphi corridor and would continue to control all the international passages. The Gaza Strip would remain fully dependent on Israeli decisions regarding movement of people and goods. Egypt's influence inside the Gaza Strip would be very limited, perhaps involving a few military, economic, and administrative advisers. Israel would retain maximum flexibility to operate inside Gaza against terrorists, and smuggling from Egypt would be kept to a minimum. The possibility of Israeli-Egyptian physical clashes would be low. The main disadvantage of this posture is that the Palestinians would claim that Israel still has Gaza under siege and that the disengagement is merely a continuation of the occupation by other means. This would be a license for the continued and unimpeded activity of militia groups.

Were Egypt a state on the path of political and economic reform, with a string of successes in rolling back militant Islam, one of the first two options might make some sense. But this is not the case at all. Egypt suffers from every one of the ills afflicting the Arab body politic, often in a magnified form. It is an authoritarian and inefficient state that has failed to meet even minimal goals of political and economic reform. Indeed, much of the present U.S. and Arab criticism of the perilous state of the Arab world is implicitly directly against Egypt. The commentator Fareed Zakaria has called Egypt

the intellectual soul of the Arab world. If it were to progress economically and politically, it would demonstrate more powerfully than any essay or speech that Islam is compatible with modernity, and that Arabs can thrive in today's world … The Middle East needs one such homegrown success story.[16]

But Egypt is far from being a model for any part of the Arab world. A recent American study went so far as to call it a "failing state."[17]

The Israeli disengagement plan, if it is to have any strategic value, has to be used to establish new political momentum for Israeli-Palestinian progress. It needs to create conditions for American and European economic investment to replace refugee camps with new neighborhoods. The Palestinians must be encouraged to seize the opportunity to open their economy, institute a secular-moderate educational system, and shape a new political system. This is a daunting task for the Palestinians under any circumstances. Alas, Egypt is not a model in any of these areas, and a high level of Egyptian involvement could easily result in the export of its own problems into Gaza. Were the disengagement gamble to fail—as well it could—a medium or high level of Egyptian involvement in Gaza could put Israel and Egypt on a collision course, doing serious damage to the relations between the two states.

For all these reasons, Israel has no alternative but to insist on minimal Egyptian involvement in post-disengagement Gaza.

Border of Peace

The situation on Israel's southern border, and in the Philadelphi corridor, is a complex barometer for all of the region's problems. Not only does it register the ups and downs in Israeli-Palestinian relations. It reflects the state of Egypt's relations with Israel and the Palestinians, and the situation in Egypt and Gaza itself, where sub-state actors, led by Islamists, have progressively eroded the authority of the Egyptian state and the PA. Smuggling and infiltration must be understood—and fought—in these broader contexts.

The United States has to shift its perspective on this issue. The smuggling and infiltration network should be regarded as part and parcel of the global terrorism network, and the battle against it as part of the global war on terror. Smuggling constitutes a strategic convergence between the Palestinian terror apparatus in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and global militant Islam. It is a reflection of the strengthening of militant Islam in post-9/11 Egypt and in the post-Saddam Middle East. The border will only become the "border of peace" envisioned twenty-five years ago, if and when the United States realizes many of its broader goals for Egypt and the Arab world—goals that include profound political and economic reforms and the triumph of secular democracy over militant Islam.

Until that happens, there is no alternative to a border regime that rests on forceful deterrence, active interdiction, and swift reprisal. And that means that there is no alternative to Israel's continuing presence at this crucial point on the regional map.

Maj. Gen. Doron Almog served as head of Israel's Southern Command from 2000 to 2003. In these years, the Command succeeded in preventing all attempts by terrorists to breach the security barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip. He prepared this study while a visiting military fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

[1] "Peace Treaty between the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt, Annex I, Protocol Concerning Israeli Withdrawal and Security Agreement, Article II, Determination of Final Lines and Zones," Washington, D.C., Mar. 26, 1979, at http://www.knesset.gov.il/process/docs/egypt_eng.htm.
[2] Brig. Gen. Shmuel Zakai, May 25, 2004, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) website, at http://www1.idf.il/DOVER/site/mainpage.asp?sl=EN&id=7&docid=31511.EN.
[3] "The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1995," at http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Peace/interim.html.
[4] On the smuggling phenomenon, see Ma'ariv (Hebrew), May 23, 2003; on sea smuggling, see the testimony of 'Umar Akkawi, captain of the Palestinian ship Karine-A, caught smuggling fifty tons of weapons, Fox News, Jan. 7, 2002, at http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2002/Prison+interview+with+Palestinian+ship+captain+smu.htm.
[5] IDF, General Headquarters, History Department testimony, June 7, 2004.
[6] Ma'ariv, Sept. 26 and 27, 2001, Dec. 17, 2003; IDF Southern Command Archive, Sept. 26, 2001 and Dec 17, 2003.
[7] IDF Southern Command Archive, July 7, 2003.
[8] Ma'ariv, July 18, 2002, interview with police major-general Yitzhak Aharonovich, Israeli Southern District Police Commander.
[9] Ma'ariv, July 18, Dec. 6, 2002.
[10] Ibid., July 18, 2002.
[11] "Peace Treaty between the State of Israel and the Arab Republic of Egypt," Washington D.C., Mar. 26, 1979, at http://www.knesset.gov.il/process/docs/egypt_eng.htm.
[12] Filastin al- Muslimah (London), Jan. 1999, pp. 50-3, translated in Reuven Paz, "The Future of Islamic Terrorism," Jan. 20, 1999, at http://www.ict.org.il/articles/articledet.cfm?articleid=407.
[13] For further information, see "Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya Attacks from 1988 to the Present," International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, at http://www.ict.org.il/inter_ter/orgattack.cfm?orgid=12.
[14] Ma'ariv, July 18, 2002, Apr. 15, 2003, May 8, 2003.
[15] "The Mideast Peace Process, Camp David Accords, September 17, 1978," at http://194.90.101.51/documents/Egypt/cdavid.htm.
[16] Zakaria Fareed, The Future of Freedom (New York: W.W Norton & Company Inc., 2003), p. 154.
[17] Ruth M. Beitler and Cindy R. Jebb, "Egypt as a Failing State: Implications for U.S. National Security," Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) Occasional Paper 51, July 2003, U.S. Air Force Academy, at http://www.usafa.af.mil/inss/OCP/ocp51f.pdf.