x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Egyptian crackdown on tunnels to Gaza has Hamas reeling

Egyptian soldiers collapse vital passages, leaving Gazans facing shortages of food, building materials and other staples from Sinai.

Palestinians inside a smuggling tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip.
Palestinians inside a smuggling tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip.

GAZA // Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are reeling from another devastating blockade but this time they are blaming Egypt, the country they once hoped would end their isolation, rather than their old foe Israel.

In a few weeks of digging, dynamiting and drenching, Egyptian troops have destroyed many of the smuggling tunnels that ran under the Egypt-Gaza border and had provided the cramped coastal enclave with commercial goods as well as weaponry.

The Islamist Hamas government, which taxes much of the traffic through the underground passages, has been hit hard by the losses. Ordinary Palestinians, many of them dependent on UN aid handouts, have seen prices for staple goods skyrocket.

"There is a difficult humanitarian situation in Gaza because of the Egyptian measures on the borders," said a Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri. "Most of the tunnels were demolished and the few that remain open are paralysed."

He likened the crisis to 2007, when Israel, responding to the Hamas takeover of Gaza in a brief civil war with western-backed Palestinian rivals Fatah, clamped down on the territory.

The Israelis still maintain a strict control of all imports into Gaza to prevent arms reaching Hamas, which refuses to recognise Israel and has often clashed with it. Under international accords, merchandise cannot be imported through Egypt.

Egypt mobilised against the tunnels after militants in the Sinai desert killed 16 of its soldiers a year ago. Egypt said some of the gunmen had slipped into Sinai from nearby Gaza, an accusation denied by Hamas.

The tunnel crackdown has gathered pace since the Egyptian military removed the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, from power this month. Mr Morsi's short-lived rule had already disappointed Hamas, since despite their shared ideology he appeared in no rush to open the Gaza border.

With Mr Morsi now gone, Hamas openly despairs, as it has also parted ways with the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, who had long hosted the Palestinian faction's foreign headquarters, and lost key funding from Damascus's ally, Iran.

Ala Al Rafati, the Hamas economy minister, said tunnel closures since June had cost Gaza about US$230 million (Dh845m) - almost a tenth of the GDP of the territory, whose 1.7 million residents suffer more than 30 per cent unemployment.

"The continued restrictions threaten to bring construction projects to a complete halt," he said, referring to cement that has been brought through the tunnels, along with everything from foodstuffs to electrical appliances to the occasional car.

An Egyptian official said the anti-tunnel campaign was only for security needs: "There are elements that use these tunnels to inflict harm on Egyptian and Palestinians on both sides of the border."

Ehud Yaari, a Middle East analyst from Israel who has studied the Sinai situation in depth, said that while Egypt had stemmed the flow of weapons into Gaza, it was permitting a measured flow of commercial goods to prevent massive shortfalls.

"When the Egyptians felt there was a shortage of fuel in Gaza, they allowed certain tunnels that carry fuel in to operate for a few days. They are very sensitive to the situation inside Gaza," Mr Yaari said.

A diplomat who monitors Gaza agreed that the tunnel closures posed a strategic setback to Hamas's rocket arsenal, which was targeted in an aerial blitz by Israel last November.

Though Hamas has for the most part observed an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire since then, and kept smaller Gaza factions to the deal as well, the diplomat predicted that the Islamists would redouble local production of weaponry and try to circumvent the tunnel closures.

"Longer, deeper and well-hidden tunnels could be one of those ways," he said.

Mr Abu Zuhri said Hamas's first concern was providing for the Palestinians' day-to-day needs.

"We are capable of creating alternatives to contend with any crisis," he said. "The continuing closure of tunnels without making an alternative is practically strangling Gaza."

Hamas has repeatedly but fruitlessly urged Egypt to allow goods to enter through a land corridor. Indeed, at Rafah, the sole passenger terminal on the border, Egypt was on Sunday restricting passage to compassionate cases only. Even that was an improvement on frequent periods in which Rafah was shuttered.

"We are aware of the humanitarian needs in the Gaza Strip, and Rafah crossing opens for those who need to travel," the Egyptian official said. "We want people in Gaza to be assured Egypt will never abandon their side and will always be a major supporter of the Palestinian national cause."