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How not to close the Gaza tunnels

How not to close the Gaza tunnels

I see that mothership Slate has an article by William Saletan on “how to close the Gaza tunnels.” (Back in December, FP ran a photo essay on the tunnels that is still definitely worth checking out.)

Unfortunately, Saletan’s piece should have been called “How not to close the Gaza tunnels.” It’s really terrible advice — almost a parody of the worst sort of technocentric thinking that military reformers like H.R. McMaster have been fighting against for decades.

Saletan examines the following nine options:

  1. Buffer zone
  2. Wall
  3. Moat
  4. Trench
  5. Ground-pentrating radar
  6. Electromagnetic gradiometry
  7. Drone-operated gradiometry
  8. Automatic sensors
  9. Statistical bombing

Seriously, I was waiting for the twist at the end where Saletan says, “See, none of this BS will work, which is why…” But instead, he concludes:

If Israel can’t get a deal to block the tunnels with sensors or a barrier, it might have to resort to “statistical” bombing again. That could mean a bombing campaign along the border every three to six months—the length of time it takes diggers to complete new tunnels. An ugly prospect, to be sure. But not as ugly as what’s going on right now in Gaza.

What ever happened to basic economics? If people want stuff, and people are willing to supply it at the demanded price — whether it’s illegal drugs, weapons, or televisions — they will find a way to supply it, and they will take extreme risks if the expected payoff exceeds their expected costs. Full stop. (There’s even a book about this phenomenon.)

The super-smart Michael Slackman looked into the smuggling issue in 2007, and he concluded (after actual reporting!) that “to stanch the flow of weapons, Egypt will ultimately have to address the economic and social concerns of the region, and not rely solely on its security forces”:

In more than a dozen interviews shortly after Hamas solidified its grip on Gaza, locals said the Palestinian territory was a primary market for goods in a region short of jobs and other economic opportunities. They said, almost without exception, that the business of ferrying weapons was more about profit than ideology. […]

In the last two years, since Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza, Egyptian officials said they had increased their policing of the border area, blowing up tunnels and arresting people connected with smuggling.

Israeli officials say that when they still had a presence in Gaza, they tried to foil the tunneling by installing a concrete or iron wall along the border that extended 3 meters, or 10 feet, underground. But the tunnels are typically 6 to 20 meters below ground.

Israel also used sonar and other sensors to hunt for the tunnels, occasionally setting off charges to cause undiscovered tunnels to collapse. They also urged the Egyptians to do more – which they did.

But no matter how much the authorities here tried to crack down on smuggling, people here said, the outlaw culture could never be overcome without economic development. Unemployment in the region is among the highest in Egypt.

While a percentage of the weapons smuggling is a function of solidarity with the Palestinians, people here said, weapons were also just one product that brought income. Many of the Bedouins said they also worked to smuggle people into Israel, often women from Eastern Europe looking to work in the sex industry. They talked of smuggling marijuana and cigarettes, too.

There’s a sad history of people who don’t understand — or, for political reasons, pretend not to understand — why technology won’t solve their political, economic, and social problems. Take Robert McNamara, who in 1967 announced plans for a massive, ill-conceived “electronic anti-infiltration barrier” to stop inflitration of men and materiel from North Vietnam. Or take the moronic “virtual fence” that some in the U.S. government concoted to address illegal immigration because they didn’t grasp what BusinessWeek‘s Keith Epstein, with more patience than I can muster, explains here:

The allure of a technology fix is understandable, given what federal agents are up against. Along nearly 2,000 miles of scorching desert, steep canyons, winding rivers, and urban mazes, they routinely strive for the unattainable—to stop the flow of people so desperate for better lives that they will climb, run, swim, tunnel, bribe, and even hide in car undercarriages to get into the U.S. The number of Border Patrol agents has almost doubled since 2000, to 14,900, supplemented now by up to 3,000 National Guard troops. Still, migrants continue to cross. And they’ll continue to come, as long as Mexico’s per capita income remains one-fifth that of the U.S. and employers in El Norte continue to welcome them. 

So, wise guy, you ask, how do you shut down the Gaza tunnels?

My answer: You don’t. Or, at least, not until you permit free trade in and out of Gaza, end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raise income levels in northern Sinai, and pay Egyptian officials high enough wages such that they don’t feel the need to take bribes.

There is no technological solution, so best of luck with the rest of it.

Photo: Abid Katib/Getty Images