Gaza's tunnels back in the spotlight
The cross-border incident two weeks ago near Eilat has put new focus on tunnels connecting Gaza to the outside world, as well as on the Israeli siege that makes them necessary, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Palestinian tunnel diggers, wearing masks to conceal their identity, remove sand in a bucket from a tunnel underground in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt
Salah Al-Aydi, 54, was ecstatic during Eid as he received guests in his home in Berkat Al-Wez west of Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in central Gaza. This was the first Eid in three years that Al-Aydi was able to host family and friends in his own home. Over the past three years he lived in a modest rented apartment on the outskirts of the refugee camp with his family of 11. His three-storey home was one of the first to be destroyed by the Israeli army during its war on Gaza at the end of 2008.
Although Al-Aydi was only able to rebuild one floor of his home, he cannot stop expressing his joy over what he has accomplished. He would not have been able to achieve this feat if it wasn't for suppliers bringing construction materials from Egypt into the Gaza Strip through underground tunnels, since Israel adamantly refuses to allow building materials into Gaza.
Hundreds of owners whose homes were demolished during and before the last war are in debt to the tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip and Egypt for restoring some signs of normalcy to their lives.
"Although only about a quarter of homes destroyed by the Israeli occupation during the war were rebuilt using materials smuggled through tunnels, this development has significantly alleviated the housing problem in the Gaza Strip," Awwad Suleiman, the owner of a construction company in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "While Israel absolutely bans the passage of any building materials, the only hope for the families that lost their homes is the tunnels. There are no other alternatives."
Suleiman said that the volume of reconstruction of destroyed homes depends on the amount of construction material arriving in Gaza via the tunnels. These tunnels are not only vital for the families that lost their homes during the war, but without the tunnels public and private transportation would come to a grinding halt. Since 2007, Israel has blocked the passage of all fuel, completely. Three weeks ago, Israeli shelling targeted one of the tunnels being used to smuggle fuel from Egypt to Gaza, causing a marked drop in the availability of fuel in the Gaza Strip. This quickly translated into long queues of vehicles and people that extended hundreds of metres at gas stations stocked with short supplies.
Ibrahim Al-Agala is grief stricken every time he remembers his condition in mid-2007 when Israel blocked fuel. Al-Agala and his colleague taxi drivers had to resort to using frying oil as fuel, which resulted in new health problems in the Gaza Strip. "I wished and still wish that I never lived through those years," he told the Weekly. "It was a living hell. I felt ashamed in front of my passengers and family when I came home and reeked of frying oil."
The tunnels also play a critical role for the health and medical sector in the Gaza Strip since they are a primary source for bringing in pharmaceuticals, medicine and medical supplies, especially that Gaza Minister of Health Bassem Naim announced that his ministry has run out of 150 types of medicine as Israel is procrastinating in allowing the passage of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies into the Strip.
Ahmed Zawat, the owner of a pharmaceutical warehouse that supplies pharmacies, said it is better for him to rely on products from Palestinian pharmaceutical companies in the West Bank, bringing them over once Israel opens the trading border between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. On principle, pharmaceutical warehouses import medicine from the West Bank, but often Israel prevents it from entering.
Gaza has no alternative to medicine from the West Bank or imports from abroad. The sole pharmaceutical production company in Gaza was levelled by Israel at the end of 2006, pummelling it into a mountain of rubble. Hence, the tunnels represent a main source of medical supplies in the Gaza Strip. To meet the needs of private dentist clinics, for example, entirely depends on supplies coming through the tunnels since there is no entity to coordinate importing the highly specialised supplies for these clinics through trade crossings with Israel.
Although Tel Aviv has alleviated restrictions on the passage of food supplies through trading posts between Israel and the Gaza Strip since the events of the Freedom Flotilla at the end of May 2010, food supplies are irregular, which makes merchants dependent on the tunnels to supply them with provisions.
The issue of the tunnels is especially critical now after the Eilat attack and claims by Israel that the perpetrators came from the Gaza Strip through one of the tunnels. But Israel's official claim was unconvincing even to a large number of Israelis. In an investigative report published in Haaretz on 25 August, Israeli reporter Amira Haas revealed that Israel has not presented any evidence that the attackers in Eilat came from Gaza. Haas wrote that no Palestinian families in Gaza reported their sons missing or held any funerals, adding that it would be very difficult to hide the absence of a family member in a small and enclosed area such as the Strip.
She added that there is no direct evidence that supports Israel's claim that the Palestinian group the Popular Resistance Committees is responsible for the attacks.
On 27 August, Israeli television quoted an Israeli political source as saying that Israel was keen on exploiting the Eilat attack to support its rationale for continuing its siege on Gaza. While Israel continues to claim that the tunnels are the primary source of weapons smuggling into Gaza, Reserve General Yom-Tov Samia, who previously led Israeli troops in Gaza, 2002-2005, caused controversy when he revealed in interview with Israeli Radio that most of the weapons reaching the Gaza Strip arrive by sea, which is under Israel's direct control.
Samia said that despite intensive surveillance by Israel of the Gaza Strip coast, it fails to prevent smuggling there. Discussing smuggling operations under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, Samia admitted that the Israeli army was unsuccessful, even when it occupied the Gaza Strip, in preventing smuggling operations across the border. "We have always suffered from arms smuggling, and we cannot in actuality close that border completely to arms smuggling," the general stated.
Israeli writer Amnon Bar accused Israel of contributing to encouraging arms smuggling across the border. Talking to a morning show on Israeli Radio on 30 August, Bar stated: "We put Gaza under siege which pushed the Palestinians into digging tunnels, and when there are tunnels they cannot be monitored. No country can monitor tunnels." Bar argued that lifting the siege on Gaza is a fundamental prerequisite to shutting down the tunnels.
A Palestinian security source told the Weekly that since the Rafah Crossing is only for the passage of people, it is not an alternative to using tunnels. The source revealed that for two months security agencies in the Gaza Strip have implemented a tight security plan regarding the tunnels, "to prevent any acts that would undermine the national security of Egypt or Gaza." He explained that the plan was drawn up and implemented in coordination with the Egyptians, and includes deploying large numbers of forces along the border and constructing metal enforced dirt trenches with barbed wire 50 metres from the Egyptian wall to secure the border.
The plan also includes constructing three main gates along the border to monitor tunnel workers as well as entering and exiting merchandise. Tunnel workers are not allowed to enter the border region without identification papers and are required to register their names at the border post near the gate of the Rafah Crossing.
The source added that cars belonging to Palestinians living abroad, especially those returning from Gulf States who have decided to return to the Gaza Strip, are also allowed to come through the tunnels. He added that security agencies in Gaza found that some of the cars that entered Gaza were stolen and immediately returned them to Egypt in coordination with Egyptian authorities. This resulted in a ban on any vehicle passing through the tunnels without proper documentation proving that it was purchased legally.