News Column

Gaza Crisis Looms Following Egyptian Cutoff

July 16, 2013

Ofira Koopmans and Saud Abu Ramadan, dpa

The usual clamour of generators, pulling machines, trucks and shouting workers has gone silent in the border area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Since the toppling of president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian military has blown up and bulldozed many of the hundreds of smuggling tunnels dug under the border with Gaza that serve as the major supply line for the enclave's 1.7 million people.

One video posted on YouTube shows how Egyptian army officers stand by as a digger pulls away the concrete cover of a large depot hitherto hidden underground, perhaps the size of a swimming pool, filled with diesel.

In the last two days, eight tunnels were uncovered and closed, witnesses said.

The Egyptian army sees the campaign in the border town of Rafah as serving its national security. Egyptian media charge that Palestinian militants use the tunnels to infiltrate the Sinai Peninsula, where they inflict anarchy and violence, and that Gazans are "stealing" Egypt's fuel, creating a shortage in the country.

The military campaign has put Gaza's civilian life under pressure by sparking an acute shortage of cheap fuel and other products.

Disruptive power blackouts, which Gazans have lived with for years, are lasting longer as electricity in the coastal enclave is largely generated by fuel.

Since Israel eased its economic blockade on Gaza in June 2010, fuel is being imported through its Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza.

But most Gazans cannot afford to buy gasoline in Israel, where 1 litre of 95 Octane costs some 8 Israeli shekels (2.22 dollars), compared to about 3 shekels for a litre smuggled in from Egypt.

Between 2007, when the radical Hamas movement seized sole control of Gaza, and 2010, the Israeli blockade, imposed in response to rocket attacks, was near-total. Only bare necessities were allowed in to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Since 2010, imports from Israel are unrestricted with the exception of cement, iron, gravel, chemicals and other raw materials that Israelis say are used to make bunkers, tunnels and weapons.

But products made in Israel are much more expensive than their counterparts smuggled in from Egypt.

"We are afraid that the closure of the tunnels will last for too long," said Abu Ammar, as he sat on a plastic chair near the tunnel he owns in Rafah.

"Now the situation is back to being as difficult as it was after 2007. The Egyptians prevent anything to cross through the tunnels and we can't bring in even a straw," said the 48-year-old, who asked his 20 workers to stay home until the Egyptian security campaign ends.

Now, once again, construction projects are frozen amid a shortage of materials, while cars queue outside gas stations waiting for fuel. Officials are once again warning of a humanitarian crisis.

"The security campaign against the tunnels is unjustified, because the population of Gaza don't have an alternative to meet their basic needs," said Rafah Mayor Sobhi Rodwan.

"We understand the security and political situation in Egypt," he took care to add. "We wish calm and prosperity to the Egyptians and for them to overcome their political crisis soon."

Sami Abu Seif, 48, a former Palestinian Authority employee from Gaza City, said a comprehensive solution was the only way to end the hardship.

He wants to see a reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and Palestinian President Mamoud Abbas of the rival Fatah party in the West Bank, along with the resumption of stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"Shutting down the tunnels without creating any alternative would make Gaza a ticking bomb that can explode anytime," warned the father of five.

Hamas uses the tunnels to raise taxes and bring in cash to fund its operations.

When Morsi won the presidential elections in Egypt one year ago, the Islamist movement - the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood - celebrated all over the Gaza Strip, its armed fighters firing into the air.

In the past two weeks, an atmosphere of gloom has hung over its supporters.

Analysts agree that Morsi's fall is bad news for Hamas, and good news for moderate Abbas and for Israel, which has close security cooperation ties with the Egyptian military.

Weakened and isolated, Hamas may become more inclined to finally reconcile with Abbas and his secular Fatah movement, they said. Some Israelis and Palestinians cautiously hope this could boost the chances of a West Bank-Gaza reunion and, by extension, a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

"The open doors at the presidential palace in Cairo will now close to" Hamas officials, said Alex Fishman, a commentator for Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yediot Ahronot.

"It wasn't just the Muslim Brotherhood that was beaten the other night. Hamas also took a serious blow."





Source: Copyright 2013 dpa Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH


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