Commentary

Palestinians in Gaza Under Pressure as Tunnels Shut Down

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

At the height of Israel’s blockade against Gaza, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip relied on a vast network of tunnels from Egypt to smuggle in food, building materials, and myriad other products. The recent events in Egypt, however, have brought the majority of that activity to a halt, thereby causing a severe shortage of goods and materials for the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. Hamas’s adversarial relationship with the new military-backed regime in Egypt has not helped matters, despite promises by Hamas officials that they would come to the rescue of the Palestinians in the territory.  Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has lobbied and received support from both the Israelis and the Egyptians for an easing of access of the Palestinians in Gaza in and out of Egypt, as well as for a further loosening of curbs on building materials coming into Gaza.

The issue of the tunnel closure was recently highlighted in an article by Al-Ahram’s Gaza correspondent: “The destruction of tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border is compounding Israel’s siege and having a debilitating effect on Gaza’s residents….Recent developments in Egypt have led to devastating humanitarian conditions in Gaza, where two million beleaguered and impoverished Palestinians are still smarting from seven years of siege. Thousands of Palestinians that need to travel for health, education and other reasons are still stuck at Rafah Crossing, waiting their turn to go through. Shortages of food and building materials have reached unprecedented levels. Even if the supply coming from Israel through the Karem Salem Crossing is adequate, it is too expensive to matter for most Gazans.”

Joel Gulhane, writing for Egypt Daily News, notes that in the midst of the ongoing shortages, Hamas, which won control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah back in 2007, has promised to make up for the shortages: “Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh stated on Friday that his government will provide for its people following an intensified crackdown on the smuggling tunnels by Egyptian security forces. Haniyeh said that in response to the crackdown on the tunnels, the Hamas government would take steps to “ease the burden of citizens and support them in the face of the crisis,” according to the Hamas website. A military source confirmed to Daily News Egypt that approximately 150 tunnels connecting Egypt and Gaza have been destroyed since Mohamed Morsi was deposed on 3 July. Towards the end of July United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said some reports suggested that the Egyptian Army’s crackdown led to 80% of the tunnels being out of operation.”

However, given Hamas’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood — the current Egyptian regime’s nemesis — many are skeptical of the organization’s ability to deliver on its promises. This has become even more evident in the recent dust-up along the Gaza-Egypt border where, as the Palestinian news agency Maan News reports, Hamas has prevented students from Gaza entering into Egypt: “Hamas security forces on Wednesday suppressed a gathering of students hoping to cross the Rafah terminal into Egypt to reach their universities, the official Wafa news agency reported. Around 200 students were waiting at the main gate to cross into Egypt. Hamas security forces assaulted students at the crossing with batons and forcibly dispersed them with police vehicles, Wafa said. Hamas denied the students access to Egypt because they had obtained permission to travel from the PA embassy in Cairo.”

Al Hayat’s Abdullah Iskandar worries that Hamas’s uneasy relationship with the generals in Egypt will be further deteriorated by Hamas’s alleged collaboration with extremist elements inside Egypt: “It would not be an incredible finding to say that getting the basic necessities to sustain the minimum level of livelihood in the Gaza Strip is inherently linked to Egypt, as long as no one can force the Israeli government to lift the siege imposed on the Gaza population....This means that the movement's command in the Strip, or at least part of it, is collaborating with the armed extremists who are trying to retaliate against the Egyptian authorities in Sinai, or that this command is unaware of the special important given by the Egyptian authorities to stability and security in Sinai. In both cases, the movement is committing a grave mistake at the level of the relations with Cairo.”

As hinted at earlier, while Hamas struggles, Maan News writes that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has taken the initiative by communicating and convincing both the Egyptians and the Israelis to loosen existing restrictions: “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday phoned the chief of Egyptian intelligence and asked him to allow students, sick people, and humanitarian cases to travel through the Rafah crossing. Mohammad Tuhami responded with a promise to allow those cases to exit the besieged coastal enclave in the coming days, according to officials at Abbas' office....There have been frequent closures of the terminal in recent weeks due to political unrest in Egypt and violence in the Sinai peninsula. The crossing is the only way most Palestinians in Gaza can enter or leave the territory. Israel imposes an air and sea blockade on the enclave, and its border is closed to Palestinians.”

The response, judging from media reports, has been mostly positive, albeit much remains to be done. Al Arabiya, citing Reuters news agency, announced that after a week-long closure the border between Gaza and Egypt has reopened: “Egypt partially reopened its border crossing with the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, a week after it was closed in response to a deadly attack on an Egyptian military headquarters near the frontier.... Officials of the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank-based rival of Gaza's Hamas Islamist rulers, said Cairo agreed to open the crossing for four hours on Wednesday and Thursday at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's request to address the humanitarian needs of patients seeking treatment in Egypt and of students studying there.”

A similar response has come from Israel, where, according to AFP news agency, the Israeli government has decided to “allow limited quantities of building materials for use by the private sector into the blockaded Gaza Strip starting from Sunday …. After ‘efforts exerted by the Palestinian Authority, Israel has agreed for the first time in six years for building materials such as cement, iron and gravel to be brought into Gaza from Sunday’ through the Kerem Shalom goods crossing, said Raed Fattouh, PA official in charge of Gaza supplies....The Jewish state eased the blockade slightly following an international outcry after Israel's botched raid on a Turkish Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 to allow food and building materials for internationally funded projects. Israel said it feared construction materials could be used by Hamas in their attacks on the Jewish state.”


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