“The Egypt of today isn’t the Egypt of yesterday ... (We) won’t leave Gaza on its own,” President Mohamed Morsi said in November amid Israel’s bombardment of the Palestinian territory. It is ironic, then, that the Egypt of today has been actively partaking with Israel in the blockade of Gaza, much like it did under dictator Hosni Mubarak.
Since Feb. 3, Egyptian authorities have been flooding the tunnels that have been Gaza’s economic lifeline since the blockade began in 2006. They say the operation will continue until they are all closed, and have reportedly confiscated large quantities of goods, including food, building materials and computers. There have been eyewitness accounts by the mainstream media of tunnel workers rushing for safety because no prior flood warning was given. To add insult to injury, and for no discernible reason, they have been filled not just with water, but also sewage.
Cairo has cited security reasons for its crackdown, amid domestic, regional and international concern over increasing lawlessness in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The pipelines delivering gas to Israel have reportedly been bombed more than 15 times in the last two years, and several military checkpoints have been attacked in recent months. “We don’t want to see these tunnels used for illegal ways of smuggling either people or weapons that can really harm Egyptian security,” said Morsi’s national security adviser Essam Haddad. “And on the other side, we wouldn’t like to see arms smuggled through these tunnels either in or out, because we’re now seeing in Sinai, and we’ve captured actually across Egypt, heavy arms that could be used in a very dangerous way.”
Army spokesman Ahmed Mohamed Ali said: “We realize how much our brothers in Palestine suffer, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptian Armed Forces will allow anyone to harm national interests.” Some of the gunmen who killed Egyptian soldiers near the Gaza border in August crossed into the country via the tunnels, according to Cairo. This has been denied by Palestinians.
“I support Egypt’s right to protect its security,” wrote Abdel Bari Atwan, the Palestinian editor-in-chief of the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi. However, if the tunnels had been flooded after the August attack, “it might be more understandable,” he added. “Gaza’s residents shouldn’t pay the price for this crime, particularly when investigations couldn’t find any Palestinian involvement in it.”
Haddad suggested that the loosened restrictions at the Rafah border crossing may have encouraged the crackdown on the tunnels: “Now we can say that the borders are open to a good extent ... and the needs of the Gazan people are allowed in.” However, he has acknowledged that “it could still be improved.”
The timing of Egypt’s decision is odd, and potentially counterproductive to the two sets of talks it is currently mediating. The first set is indirect, between Israel and Hamas on easing the blockade, Israel’s Channel 2 reported last week, adding that the talks have been ongoing for “a number of weeks.” However, if the blockade is being tightened on Egypt’s side, there is little incentive for Israel to do the opposite. Indeed, a Hamas spokesman said a few days ago that in the past two weeks — almost as long as Egypt has been flooding the tunnels — there have been no talks. The second set is between Hamas and Fatah on forming a national unity government and healing factional divisions. Closing the tunnels will weaken Hamas’s position not just in Gaza, but at the negotiating table. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that according to the Islamist movement, the talks have not gone well.
Egypt’s decision effectively tightens the blockade on Gaza, particularly given Israel’s categorical and repeated refusals to lift it. The blockade has caused “unacceptable suffering” to the territory’s 1.7 million people, said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. It amounts to “collective punishment, a violation of international humanitarian law,” according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Cairo is thus contributing to the continued isolation of Gaza, which John Holmes, former UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, describes as an “open-air prison.” The flooding will have a devastating impact on the people of the impoverished, besieged territory, at least 10,000 of whom are believed to work in the tunnel business. This will further exacerbate chronically high unemployment levels.
An estimated 30 percent of all goods in Gaza arrive via the tunnels. Despite a limited easing of the blockade since June 2010, Israeli and international NGOs continue to document severe restrictions, and a UN investigation concluded that there has been no significant improvement in people’s lives. Residents “still rely on the tunnels to get vital goods that are otherwise difficult to obtain in Gaza, such as construction materials and cheap fuel,” wrote Associated Press reporter Ibrahim Barzak.
Omar Shabban, an economist with the Gaza-based think tank Palthink, describes this “black economy” as “huge” — up to $700 million a year. “The construction sector in Gaza is almost 100 percent dependent on the tunnels," he added. “Gaza can’t live without the tunnels.”
Closing them will no doubt limit considerably the smuggling of weapons into Gaza. However, since they are used against Israel to draw international attention to the territory’s plight, closing it off further from the rest of the world may make Palestinian militants more likely to use them, and will certainly push them to find alternative methods of acquiring them.
With Egypt’s government already reeling from nationwide protests, its crackdown on the tunnels will likely do it no favors in terms of domestic popularity. After all, Mubarak’s complicity with Israel in blockading Gaza was among his most reviled policies across the spectrum of Egyptian society, including those who now form the government’s support base. The tunnel closures will negatively affect Egyptian businesses — mainly those of Sinai Bedouins — that have profited hugely from the blackmarket trade with Gaza. Bedouins are suspected by the authorities of being behind the rising lawlessness in the Sinai, and their crackdown on the community has bred resentment within it. Flooding the tunnels, and thereby hitting an important revenue stream, will further increase that resentment.
The move against the tunnel trade comes as a surprise when put in the context of ties between Hamas and Egypt’s government, which is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The two parties share a similar Islamist ideology — in fact, the former originated from the latter. Hamas has criticized Cairo’s decision, with senior official Khalil Al-Haya calling it “a renewal of the blockade, ” and Barzak describing it as “a rare act of tension” between the two. Closing down the tunnels deprives Hamas of a vital source of revenue, made all the more important due to strains with its financial backer Iran because of the movement’s support for the Syrian revolution. Hamas taxes the tunnel trade, and prefers smuggling — particularly fuel — to paying customs duties for goods entering Gaza via Israel.
Despite this, Hamas’s reaction has been more muted than many expected. Cairo “doesn’t want (the blockade) to happen,” said Haya. “Egypt is a state of sovereignty, and we don’t impose on it anything,” added Hamas official Salah Al-Bardawil. “We address the Egyptian side about the issue, and hope they’ll understand us and our needs. We trust the Egyptian leadership that they won’t leave the Palestinian people alone.” This tame response is “the strongest indication yet” that Hamas’s leaders “are now pinning their hopes on their ideological allies in Cairo, even if at the moment they appear to be harming the interests of the citizens of Gaza,” wrote New York Times reporters Fares Akram and David Kirkpatrick. When Mubarak “used far less effective methods to close the tunnels, Hamas screamed of betrayal,” they added.
Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash.