Gaza Tunnels On Life Support

Guest post by Jared Malsin, journalist and former chief English editor for the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency

[caption id="attachment_372" align="aligncenter" width="614"] Underground tunnels at Rafah where goods are smuggled from Egypt into Gaza. Photo taken in 2009 © Marius Arnesen/Flickr. IRIN[/caption]

The Gaza Strip’s largest commercial portal with the outside world is a vast tunnel network.  Before the deadly armed attacks on the Egyptian border, about $500 million and $700 million in goods passed through the tunnels every year.

But all this may be forced to change.

Hamas is pressing Egypt to use the Gaza Strip’s Rafah border crossing for commercial trade and potentially designate Gaza a free trade zone, according to an important report from IRIN, the UN humanitarian news service.

The fact that this possibility is under discussion is significant.  Namely, because such a move could allow Israel to functionally end its responsibility for Gaza and further separate the Strip from its natural ties to the West Bank and Palestine/Israel at large.

Hamas’ proposal to transform the Rafah crossing into a commercial terminal could mean that the group believes Egypt is more serious this time around about closing down tunnels. At the least, this overture is a sign that Hamas believes the dangerous and physically unstable tunnel system is not a long-term solution to the economic collapse caused by the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

But the announcement comes at a sensitive time.  Earlier this month, Egyptian authorities moved to shut down much of the vast network of underground tunnels following an armed attack on an Egyptian border post that left 16 soldiers dead.

In the past, Egypt has used a variety of means to close down the smuggling tunnels, including a Bond-villain-esque attempt to build an underground metal wall. The smugglers were ultimately able to circumvent all of these attempts, including the wall (one smuggler told me during a 2010 visit that they were able to drill through the wall in a matter of hours).

This ambitious project would require a lot of work.

The Rafah border crossing is a passenger terminal and currently lacks the infrastructure to handle the passage of commercial goods, so any potential trade at the crossing would require a significant augmentation to the crossing.

Any future formalization of the border is unlikely to happen any time soon, as IRIN notes:

Calls for improved trade relations with Egypt have sparked fears that Israel would use the opportunity to rid itself of all responsibility for Gaza: Once Rafah is opened to commercial goods, Israel could argue it no longer has to keep open the Kerem Shalom crossing – the only official entry point for imported goods. “That would be the end of Israeli responsibility for Gaza,” said Thrall.

Such a move could undermine efforts to reach Palestinian unity by further disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank. For this reason, even Hamas is careful not to push too hard for imports into Gaza.

What’s happening at Kerem Shalom? “We don’t want to see Israel closing Kerem Shalom,” Hamad said. “Israel just wants to push us towards Egypt. But we do consider Gaza as part of the Palestinian homeland.”

“It’s a serious discussion,” added Shawwa, the former PA minister. “Do we want an independent economy of Gaza? That might take us into a new era of Palestinian separation.”

The ongoing focus on the future of the Rafah border is a result of diminishing expectations that Israel will ever reopen its border crossings with Gaza.

Beginning with the Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1967, Gaza residents enjoyed relatively free trade and movement within Israel and the West Bank. This changed in 1991 when Israel cancelled the general exit permit for Gaza residents, and matters became drastically worse with the imposition of closure in 2006 and 2007, following Hamas’ rise to power.

As Sari Bashi, the director of Tel Aviv-based advocacy group Gisha, told me in an interview last year: “Israel bombed the airport in Gaza and bombed the site where they were building a seaport,” Bashi said, “so those restrictions have made Rafah crossing into the gateway to the world for folks living in Gaza, but it doesn’t absolve Israel of the responsibility to respect the rights of people in Gaza to freedom of movement.”

The real question however lies with Egypt.

Under this potential scenario, with Israel all but absolving responsibility for the crossing, Egypt would have its hands full managing the border. For now the Egyptian authorities are giving little indication of whether they would accept such an arrangement.

Egypt’s dilemma is summed up nicely by Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, quoted in IRIN: “[Egyptian President Mohamed] Morsi knows he can’t really allow Palestinians in Gaza to starve. And there is pressure from inside the [Muslim] Brotherhood to support Hamas.”

On the other hand, he says, Egypt is constrained by close security cooperation with Israel in Sinai.

This will prove to be one of Mohammed Morsi’s most contentious challenges as president.

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