Good historical background on the whole Rafiah mess from analyst Elliot Chodoff. (Sign up here for Chodoff’s and Yisrael Neeman’s free email newsletter.):
Rafiah Tunnel Vision
By Elliot Chodoff
The vehemence of the worldwide condemnation of Israel for the IDF operation into Rafiah this week surprised even some veteran Israeli commentators. The UN Security Council resolution, the US abstention, President Bush’s statement that the operation did not serve Israel’s security interests, along with condemnations from European and other world leaders, fueled a media-led debate over the wisdom of the scope of Operation Rainbow, as the Rafiah incursion has been dubbed by the IDF.
It is telling that the cries of “unacceptable,” to quote Peter Hansen, Commissioner-General of UNRWA, are applied to IDF operations in Rafiah, but the terrorist murders of a Jewish family in the same area are greeted with a thundering silence. The one-sidedness of the world response is matched only by the feigned or actual ignorance of the many commentators who describe the operation as a pretext to invade Rafiah, kill innocent civilians and wantonly demolish homes.
To begin to set the record straight, we must go back some 10 years when the IDF, following the dictates of the Oslo Accords, withdrew from the Palestinian population centers in Gaza including Rafiah, and handed over control to the Palestinian Authority of Yasir Arafat. According to the terms of the agreement, Israel would remain in control of the international border with Egypt, and transit of people and goods were subject to Israel border oversight. Almost immediately, tunnels were begun to be dug under the 50 meter wide patrol strip separating Rafiah under Palestinian Authority control and that part of the city found on the Egyptian side of the border.
During the optimistic years of the Peace Process, Israeli security experts looked on with concern as a network of tunnels were dug under their noses, with the support of local PA warlords and under the direction of powerful family heads in Rafiah. These tunnels provided an open route to smuggle goods, drugs, weapons, ammunition and terrorists across the border, avoiding Israeli border control. Over the years, these tunnels provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal income to the local families and a concomitant amount in kickbacks to the local strongmen. Simultaneously, the underground arsenals of the terrorist organizations grew to frightening proportions.
With the outbreak of the fighting in September 2000, the IDF command in Gaza was faced with a difficult dilemma: how to reduce the flow of weapons and ammunition to the terrorist organizations that were now engaged in a shooting war with Israel? The obvious solution, an incursion into Rafiah to locate and destroy the tunnels, was rejected for fear of inflicting civilian casualties. Instead, a “tunnel unit” was established made up of engineering corps officers and NCO’s in an attempt to find creative solutions to the tunnel problem. After two years of research and analysis, they came up empty handed.
In the aftermath of Operation Defensive Wall in April 2002, a series of incursions into Rafiah located a number of tunnels. Their destruction marked a limited success for the IDF, but the victory was short lived. Given the fact that an operating tunnel can net some $50,000 a day for the family head who commissions and owns it, the incentive to dig more and deeper tunnels far overshadowed the cost of losing them. Tunnels were dug deeper, some reaching depths of 10 meters and more (over 30 feet), children were employed to dig around the clock, and when poor conditions led to tunnel collapse and the death of a child, there were plenty more to take his place.
Under these circumstances, and with clear evidence of massive quantities of munitions crossing the border through the tunnels, the decision was made to launch Operation Rainbow. Its objective, the elimination of the tunnels and the cessation of the weapons smuggling that has been the lifeblood of the Palestinian terrorist organizations, is not punitive but military and preventive.
There is no question that the Palestinian civilian population in Rafiah is suffering during the IDF operation, as any civilian population would when it finds itself in a war zone. The fact remains that the IDF has done much to attempt to alleviate the civilian suffering as best it can during battle, including assisting residents in acquiring food and water (an act that cost two IDF soldiers their lives last week) as well as attempting to keep noncombatants out of the line of fire (two were shot and killed by terrorists as they attempted to leave the combat zone according to IDF instructions).
Paradoxically, the scale of forces used in the operation, over two infantry battalions supported by an armored battalion, was necessitated by the fact that the terrorists in Rafiah are so heavily armed thanks to the tunnel smuggling network. To use less force in Rafiah would be tactical folly for the IDF, which would probably suit the UN and other critics just fine. After all, Israeli casualties, civilian and military, are perfectly acceptable to them.