The current upheavals in the Arab world suggest that Israel should consider retaking the Philadelphia Corridor along the Gaza-Egypt border. This would better poise Israel to defend itself against future hostilities arising from an entente between Egypt and Hamas.
The Philadelphia Corridor is a 14km strip of land running along the Egypt-Gaza border – from the Mediterranean Sea to the Keren Shalom crossing with Israel. The Philadelphia Corridor is Hamas’ lifeline. The Egyptian-Israeli agreement regarding Egyptian force deployment along the Sinai side of the border has failed to curtail arms smuggling into Gaza. Much of the weaponry, including the longer range 122 mm Grad rockets hitting Israeli cities, were delivered via this route. Israel’s response to rocket attacks has been the routine bombing of the tunnel networks along the corridor-however, aerial bombardment has also proven insufficient in thwarting arms smuggling. Today, Egypt’s half-hearted counter smuggling efforts do not pose a real threat to Hamas’ weapons procurement. This inability is notable as such rockets arising from Gaza have the capability of hitting the suburbs of Tel-Aviv. Furthermore, an Egyptian-Hamas rapprochement could put an end to covert smuggling, thereby allowing the unhindered flow of weaponry into the strip. It is only a matter of time before the rocket squads targeting Ashdod and Beersheba could be firing upon Tel-Aviv.
After Israel’s 2005 relinquishment of control of this strategic territory the notion of retaking the Philadelphia Corridor has been proposed by many in Israeli circles – a current example being Victor Sharpe’s February 24th, 2011 article in Arutz Sheva. Instead of pacifying Gaza’s terrorist organizations, Israel’s 2005 disengagement has only allowed the threat stemming from Gaza’s terrorist factions to increase. These factions have improved their military capabilities by acquiring longer and more precise high-trajectory fire armaments. It should be noted thatIsrael’s blockade and tactical operations have made it difficult for Hamas to maintain rule over Gaza. Furthermore, much to the credit of Operation Cast Lead, Hamas has focused its efforts primarily on domestic affairs, and not confronting Israel. The responsibility of governance has limited the execution of Hamas’ operations against the Jewish state – but this is not to say that this is not on Hamas’ agenda – only that at present the execution of such actions would not be tactically wise. Fearing strong military action from Israel, Hamas is attempting to enforce ceasefires. These ceasefires should not be misconstrued as an ideological détente with Israel, but rather an example of its best present-day strategy for self-preservation. Once this reality changes, so to will Hamas’ regard towards enforcing ceasefires with Israel.
Additionally, although Hamas has assumed a strategy of self-preservation, other terror organizations, such as the Salafists, Popular Resistance Committees, and Iran inspired-Islamic Jihad continue their war on Israel. Their anti-Israel operations, especially those of Islamic Jihad and the Salafists, defy the rule of Hamas, creating cracks in the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and augmenting infighting between themselves and Hamas. Hamas’ exiled political leadership in Damascus presents an additional predicament. Furthermore, Hamas’ strategic ally in Syria, the Alawite Assad regime, is entangled in civil war. Hamas must now choose to remain neutral, side with its traditional Alawite hosts in Damascus, or align itself with the budding Sunni opposition. Should Hamas opt to support the Sunni opposition, this would further jeopardize its fledgling relationship with Iran. A rift between Iran and Hamas would further align the organization with the interests of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, Hamas may reap the benefit of increased support from a new Sunni alliance in Syria-especially one which is led by the prevailing Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood and fellow Islamist factions are reaping gains in post-Mubarak Egypt. Unsurprisingly, results from Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections show the Muslim Brotherhood and radical Salafists with sixty-five percent of the vote, and liberal revolutionaries with just fifteen percent. An Islamist government in Cairo is now inevitable and Jerusalem must prepare accordingly. The ethnic, ideological, religious, and geopolitical rivalries between Egypt and Iran would serve to further distance Hamas from Iran, aligning the organization with the Egyptian sphere of influence. Additionally, Egypt’s sound relations with the West, its influence over Arab politics, and its shared border with Gaza would strengthen Hamas by providing a strategic ally. Israel must assume that when pro-Hamas governments in Egypt and in Syria are established- such would result in more robust diplomatic, financial, political, and possibly even military support for Hamas. Unlike Operation Cast Lead, where Hamas’ allies: Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran did not offer an ounce of assistance, it cannot be assumed that this will hold true when alliances are strengthened with the future governments in Cairo and Damascus.
In the event of an entente between Egypt and Hamas, Israel’s ability to effectively deal with Hamas will be further jeopardized. Although Israel will maintain its qualitative military advantage, Hamas’ new alliances with Syria and Egypt will introduce increased complexities when planning and executing operations effecting Gaza. It should be considered that should it remain, Israel’s peace treaty with a semi-hostile Egypt will further complicate its strategic options in Gaza, and could be used as a strategic card by Hamas. Hamas would thus leverageEgypt’s clout to guard itself and is likely to utilize the threat of renewed Egyptian-Israeli hostility to deter the Jewish state.
The relative calm in southern Israel is only temporary, and it is only a matter of time until Gaza’s factions resume their rocket campaigns on Israeli cities, possibly on Tel-Aviv. In the event of future clashes with Gaza’s terror groups, Israel must control the level of escalation and consider retaking the corridor. IDF deployment in the corridor would be a severe blow to Hamas’ military capabilities. It would allow for the IDF to systematically search and destroy tunnel networks and to employ various defense mechanisms. Maintaining Israeli presence in the corridor would not be easy. The length of stay would be based on the success of concerted anti-smuggling efforts; yet the alternatives of inaction could be more detrimental. Such action would undoubtedly evoke tremendous international criticism; however, Israel’s national security must be placed at the forefront when weighing the pros and cons of such action.
An Islamist government in Cairo and its alliance with Hamas demands for Israel to consider retaking the Philadelphia Corridor. In addition to immigration from Africa, the upheavals in the Arab world are already forcing Israeli expenditures to fortify the Egyptian border. Likewise, the financial costs of Israel’s presence in the Philadelphia Corridor are also justified given the funds already needed for passive and active anti-rocket defense systems in southern Israel. The cost of inaction could be greater, both financially and strategically. With future belligerency from Gaza, the execution of a tactical operation to retake the corridor would not end the danger from Gaza in its entirety, but would mitigate the impact of a greater strategic threat: the alliance between an Islamist Egypt and Hamas.