When Israelis look back on what caused the current conflict in Gaza, they point to their government’s decision in September 2005 to leave the narrow “Philadelphi Route” that runs along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. More than Israel’s disengagement from the Strip as a whole, the abandonment of this strategic area made full-scale war inevitable.
The 1994 Gaza-Jericho Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization placed this 100-meter wide corridor, which separated the Egyptian side of the town of Rafah from the Palestinian side in Gaza, under Israeli military control. (The Israeli army gave it the code name “Philadelphi.”) By 2000, local Palestinians, many of whom worked with Hamas, dug underground tunnels between the two halves of Rafah. The tunnels allowed for a lucrative smuggling trade that included weapons.
Admittedly, there were rocket attacks on Israel before the Gaza pullout (the first Qassam rocket was fired in 2001). However, the scale of the attacks totally changed after the withdrawal. Rocket attacks increased by 500% (from 179 in 2005 to 946 in 2006).
The range of Hamas’s rockets also increased following the withdrawal. Locally manufactured Qassams, which could reach targets seven kilometers away, gave way to Grad/Katyusha rockets supplied by Iran that can hit as far as 20 kilometers. These were first used in 2006. During 2008, rockets with a 40-kilometer range came through the Gaza tunnels and into Hamas’s weapons cache.
At the same time that the tunnels facilitated weapons smuggling, they also allowed hundreds of Hamas operatives to leave Gaza for Egypt, where they caught planes to Iran and underwent military training with the Revolutionary Guards at a base outside of Tehran. When Israel controlled the Philadelphi Route, its special forces waged a constant battle and kept the number of tunnels low. But by 2008, with Israeli access to the Philadelphi route cut off and measures against the tunnels halted, the number of tunnels proliferated into the hundreds.
Today, Israelis are concerned that even if Hamas is defeated militarily, its stocks of rockets will be fully replenished by Iran in a matter of months unless the tunnels under the Philadelphi Route are addressed. That is precisely what happened with Hezbollah after the 2006 Lebanon War. The United Nations Security Council cease-fire, Resolution 1701, failed to deal adequately with the rearming of the Lebanese Shiite group. Today, Hezbollah has more rockets threatening Israel than it had prior to the 2006 war.
In the case of Hamas, there is an added concern that Iran will supply rockets that reach well beyond the 40-kilometer range. In the next war, Hamas could strike Tel Aviv from inside the Gaza Strip.
How can Israel cut off the smuggling routes? In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed border controls for the Rafah area. This completely failed because the European Union monitors deployed in Rafah ran away the moment there was an escalation of violence.
Today the idea of a new EU monitoring force — a proposal Western diplomats are discussing — does not engender much confidence on the Israeli side. Others are hoping that Egypt will take seriously its obligations to close off the smuggling routes from its side. Egypt has failed to do so since 2005. Why should we expect a change now?
If these options fail, Israel may be left with no choice but to enter the Philadelphi Route and continue to destroy these tunnels in the future.
Anticipating the end of the Gaza war, there is already talk about the next stage of the Arab-Israeli peace process. Some hope that the peace process can simply be picked up where it was left off and pursued with new determination.
But the crisis over the Philadelphi Route has taught Israel a bitter lesson about relinquishing critical territory: It was a cardinal error to leave this strategic zone at the perimeter of Gaza, even if Israel wanted to get out of the Strip in its entirety. Israeli leaders including Yitzhak Rabin have warned that Israel must never leave the Jordan Valley, the equivalent perimeter zone in the West Bank.
Ariel Sharon saw the Jordan Valley as an integral part of Israel’s claim to “defensible borders,” a term used by President Bush in an April 2004 letter to Israel, that was overwhelmingly backed in special legislation by bipartisan majorities in both houses of U.S. Congress during June 2004. President-elect Barack Obama publicly recognized Israel’s right to “defensible borders” at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference last year.
The strategic stakes involved in this issue are enormous. Were Israel to be stripped of the Jordan Valley, it would undoubtedly face a massive escalation of weapons smuggling into the West Bank. Should the scale of the smuggling reach the same proportions as in Gaza, it is doubtful that even the Jordanians, motivated by the best of intentions, could bring it to a halt. Moreover, a steady stream of weapons smugglers and Islamist volunteers crossing the kingdom would undermine Jordanian security.
Diplomats are working feverishly to seal off the Philadelphi Route and bring an end to the current Gaza conflict. Let’s hope they remember the critical importance of securing Israel’s other borders — for the sake of Israel’s security, and for the stability of its neighbors.
Mr. Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 1997-1999.