Al Monitor, by Ahmed Fouad
CAIRO — “Tunnels are gates for terrorism and external support of terrorism from Gaza to Sinai,” security expert Maj. Gen. Khalid Okasha said when asked about the news of the buffer zone expansion on the border between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. The news came after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — temporarily in charge of the legislative power until the election of parliament — issued a law on April 12 to maximize to life imprisonment (25 years) the penalty of digging tunnels linking the Egyptian border to any other state. Also, using such tunnels or being aware of their existence without reporting them is to be punished.
Okasha told Al-Monitor, “Expanding the buffer zone, maximizing tunnel digging and using sanctions will restore stability to Sinai and decrease the amount of terrorist attacks that often enter into Egypt from the Gaza border."
On Oct. 25, 2014, the Egyptian state issued a decision to remove all facilities, farms and houses located in the buffer zone (500 meters, or 0.3 miles, west of the Gaza Strip) and vowed to compensate the population by providing them with other houses or money to buy a house. On Nov. 14, another decision was issued to expand the buffer zone to 1,000 meters (0.6 miles) west of Gaza and rid that area of all establishments and houses. The same procedures were to be followed and house owners were promised compensation.
According to the local council of the North Sinai province, the total value of the compensation amounts to 364 million Egyptian pounds ($47.6 million), which will be divided over the two phases of the buffer zone expansion works: the first phase, 500 meters containing 837 houses; and the second phase, 500 meters containing 1,220 houses.
While the armed forces are about to finish removing the houses, Sinai activist Eid Marzouki said in an interview on Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr that 90% of the displaced people in Sinai are yet to receive compensation.
The importance of the buffer zone expansion is becoming clear in light of the armed forces’ announcement on March 29 of the discovery of a secret tunnel connecting Gaza to Sinai and stretching along 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) into Egyptian territory. This tunnel is the longest tunnel yet to be discovered by the armed forces.
Nasser Khaled, an infrastructure expert and soil mechanical engineer, told Al-Monitor that digging such a tunnel requires modern equipment and a large number of workers to dig either in rocks or loose land. He said the process takes four to five months, while the average cost of the required equipment is no less than about 10 million Egyptian pounds ($1.3 million).
Khaled said that most of the manufacturers of such equipment do not authorize sales except to states and major engineering and construction companies. He added that the primitive or manual drilling of such tunnels may take years.
Amr Radwan, an infrastructure expert and soil mechanical engineer told Al-Monitor that it is difficult to determine how long it takes to dig such a tunnel unless the nature of the used equipment is identified and the number of workers as well as the specifications of the rocks and soil are known. He said those operations are risky because of loose rocks where drilling could lead to the quick collapse of a tunnel.
The information about the costly equipment, the fact that they are only sold to specific parties and the importance of identifying the nature of the rocks before drilling are factors that indicate that construction companies or experts may be secretly supporting the drilling operations.
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