Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has inflicted collective punishment on Palestinians in an attempt to weaken support for the armed group. As part of this, Israel has severely limited the importation of goods into Gaza, putting ordinary Palestinians on what Israeli officials once euphemistically termed "a diet".
The lifeline for Gazans in this blockade has been the smuggling tunnels, through which an estimated 30 per cent of goods enter the strip from the Egyptian side. These tunnels, many of which are significant constructions, lit by electric bulbs, are often the only way Palestinians in Gaza can bring in building materials and fuel, both of which are frequently stopped by Israel on spurious grounds. Hamas has benefited from fees and kickbacks garnered from smugglers and diggers.
This arrangement is simply untenable for all manner of reasons. Relying on subterranean mazes that are frequently targeted by Israeli weapons has left too many young men dead. It has also served to buttress Hamas, which is able to control the flow of humanitarian and illicit goods in and out of the territory.
So it's no wonder that Egypt has begun flooding these tunnels to shut them down, as The National reported yesterday. An attack last August on Egyptian soldiers near Gaza killed 16 and severely tested the relationship between Hamas and the Egyptian government. Egyptians have since taken to shutting down the burrows to stamp out movement.
Hamas expected better relations from Egypt. Many calculated that an elected government in Cairo would be more susceptible to public pressure from Egyptians, who sympathise with the cruel realities of the occupation. Perhaps more important, Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's president, was a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Hamas shares deep roots. Many expected the two would work together against the Israeli blockade.
But there is a better way. Egypt has made clear its intention to open the Rafah crossing permanently, and has done so off and on since August. Hamas has argued that permanently opening the crossing would mean they could close the tunnels. It would certainly lessen the burden of Israel's blockade, while keeping all movements of goods, people and illicit goods above board. The blockade has so decimated living conditions that Hamas offers the only succour. If Mr Morsi was indeed looking to send Hamas a message, a better way would be to open Rafah permanently, and give Gazans another alternative and brake them free from the clutches of Hamas.