Egypt tunnel crackdown will fail, says Gaza minister

21 Feb
A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in southern Gaza, Feb. 19

A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egypt-Gaza border in Rafah, southern Gaza, 19 February 2013

 

by Ma’an News Agency in Gaza City

20 February 2012

article re-edited

Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels to Gaza will not succeed unless alternatives to importing produce are provided, an official in the strip’s Hamas-run government said Wednesday.

Several days ago, Egyptian forces began flooding smuggling tunnels under the Gaza border in a campaign to shut them down. The tunnels have provided a lifeline to Palestinians since Israel intensified its blockade of Gaza in 2007.

“This is not the first time the Egyptian authorities have tried to shut down the tunnels, but none of the attempts have been successful,” economy minister Alaa Rafati told Ma’an.

Gaza’s government has informed Cairo several times that an official commercial route should be opened along the border, including a duty-free zone, Rafati said.

“We are interested in the entry of all goods via Rafah crossing,” the minister said.

Rafati said that, despite the flooding of tunnels, all goods including fuel were still entering the enclave.

“Some Egyptian commanders are flooding tunnels on their own for personal interests,” he added.

Muhammad al-Abadla, from the gas station owners’ syndicate, said while fuel supplies had been affected by the Egyptian crackdown the situation was not critical.

Dozens of tunnels had been destroyed since last August following the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in a militant attack near the Gaza fence.

Cairo said some of the gunmen had crossed into Egypt via the tunnels – a charge denied by Palestinians – and ordered an immediate crackdown.

The move surprised and angered Gaza’s rulers, which had hoped for much better ties with Cairo following the election last year of Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who is ideologically close to Hamas.

While Gaza’s rulers have been reluctant to criticise Morsi in public, ordinary Gazans are more vocal.

“Egyptian measures against tunnels have worsened since the election of Morsi. Our Hamas brothers thought he would open up Gaza. I guess they were wrong,” said a tunnel owner, who identified himself only as Ayed, fearing reprisal.

“Perhaps 150 or 200 tunnels have been shut since the Sinai attack. This is the Morsi era,” he added.

The tunnelers fear the water being pumped underground might collapse the passage ways, with possible disastrous consequences.

“Water can cause cracks in the wall and may cause the collapse of the tunnel. It may kill people,” said Ahmed al-Shaer, a tunnel worker whose cousin died a year ago when a tunnel caved in on him.

Six Palestinians died in January in tunnel implosions, raising the death toll amongst workers to 233 since 2007, according to human rights groups. Included are an estimated 20 who died in various Israeli air attacks on the border lands.

At one stage an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 tunnels snaked their way under the desert fence. But the network has shrunk markedly since 2010, when Israel eased some of the bans they imposed on imports into the coastal enclave.

All goods still have to be screened before entering Gaza, and Israel says some restrictions must remain on items that could be used to make or to store weapons.

This ensures the tunnels are still active, particularly to bring in building materials. Hamas also prefers using the tunnels to smuggle in fuel, thereby avoiding custom dues that are payable on oil crossing via Israel.

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