Gaza Tunnel Demolitions Increase As Hamas Seeks Free Trade Zone

Egypt's security forces accelerated their demolition of smuggling tunnels running beneath its border with Gaza, surpassing the destruction rate last seen under the ousted Hosni Mubarak. Mohannad Abdel Hamid reports that some Gazans have called for a free-trade zone to protect those who rely on the tunnels for a living. 

al-monitor A Palestinian smuggler walks inside inside a tunnel beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, Sept. 17, 2012. Egypt's crackdown on smuggling tunnels along its border with the Gaza Strip is making shortages ever tighter and has forced the enclave's Islamist Hamas rulers to consider urgent alternatives. Hamas officials asked Egypt late on Monday to consider alternative trade routes, such as a free trade zone, a direct deal that could boost Hamas tax revenues and circumvent rival Fatah's and Israel's control of official imports to Gaza. Photo by REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.

Topics covered

tunnels, rafah, muslim, hamas, fatah

Oct 2, 2012

Egyptian [security] forces continue to demolish tunnels [running between Gaza and the Sinai], following the Rafah attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.

An Egyptian security spokesman declared that 31 tunnels have been demolished out of 225. Despite contradictory information on the actual number of tunnels — which ranges from 225 to 1200 — these tunnels play a major role on the political and economic level, regardless of their numbers.

Initial reactions to Egypt’s actions were mild and understanding. However, in recent days Egyptians have announced they will organize protests, to be held for two weeks.

The most controversial reaction came from figures in the Hamas movement. They said that [Egyptian] President Mohammed Morsi — who rose to power through the Muslim Brotherhood — has closed more tunnels than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Indeed, this is true given the fact that security has been tightened in the Sinai more than ever before, not to mention the unprecedented security coordination between Israel and Egypt. [Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza since 2007 when Hamas seized control by ousting Fatah forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.] This has allowed Egyptian security forces to use tanks and helicopters [in the vicinity].

All of these developments are taking place during the era of the Muslim Brotherhood president and not in the era of the ousted president.

The demolition of these tunnels broke Hamas’ silence.

“Do not make us give up on the Egyptian revolution and the new regime,” said Youssef Farhat, a prominent leader in Hamas who participated in protests against the demolition of tunnels.

In the meantime, Moussa Abu Marzouk, a member of Hamas’ Political Bureau, stressed the need to establish a free trade zone as a solution to prevent smuggling through tunnels. This suggests that the demolition process [could be stopped] on the condition that a free trade zone is established. Abu Marzouk is well aware that a bilateral agreement between Hamas and the Brotherhood-run Egyptian government cannot be reached.

Other Hamas leaders linked the rate at which tunnels are being demolished to the level of construction in the free trade zone. Since — for a variety of reasons — an agreement cannot be reached [to establish such a zone and thus end the need for tunnels], Hamas, the smugglers lobby and the new rich are demanding that demolition operations be stopped.

They are prepared to exert pressure on the Egyptian Brotherhood-led government. There is more than one reading of this situation.

The tunnels have been a vital tool for Hamas. During Mubarak’s regime, the tunnels served [Hamas] at a political — rather than economic — level. They made the [Islamic] emirate project possible, allowing [the movement] to communicate with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and thus with foreign countries.

Hamas is no longer forced to deal with the West Bank, which had demanded [that Hamas] communicate directly with them. [The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank] also demanded an end to the emirate project as a most rudimentary obligation.

The tunnels are one of the emirate project’s main political pillars. They are behind the reason for the ongoing division between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Hamas remained silent at the beginning of the demolition operations, assuming that the demolition process was a mere symbolic move that would end after the destruction of a few tunnels. It also believed that a free zone agreement between Hamas and the Egyptian government was imminent.

Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip — which turned against the foreign-based Hamas leadership — did not take into consideration the fact that Hamas and the Egyptian government are not the only two players in the game. It is true that Hamas’ leadership in the Gaza Strip reneged on the reconciliation process as soon as the Brotherhood won the presidential election.

Moreover, the leadership did not take long to accuse President Morsi and his new government of thwarting the reconciliation process by providing political cover to the insurgent Hamas movement. However, the new Brotherhood rule is primarily concerned with preserving the Camp David Accords and alliances with the United States in the framework of previous dependency relationships.

Thus, the Egyptian government ought to take into consideration the public mood and the opposition mounting against its rule. The Egyptian government is in no position to adjust its policy towards Hamas’ internal leadership, or even to comply with it.

Putting an end to these tunnels is a national duty. These tunnels do not serve as a form of rebellion against the brutal Israeli siege but, rather, as one of the most important factors that deepens the divide between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

This phenomenon [of tunnel building] represents a form of economic corruption, which is reflected in the emergence of a Palestinian parasitic circle that includes thousands of newly rich citizens. These newly rich people are involved in money laundering through the purchase of real estate, building complexes, malls, tourism projects, modern car shows and villas.

They are also involved in trading with hallucinogenic pills and drugs — such as Tramadol and Access — not to mention sexual stimulation drugs, and cigarettes.

This parasitic circle is only interested in profit. Therefore, it raises prices before playing the speculations card. This is not to mention that these people have no qualms about selling Israeli products — such as fruits and vegetables — in the Egyptian market. They do not contribute to any productive projects that serve citizens and enhance their steadfastness.

In addition to their economic role, the tunnels have also served as means for Hamas and other factions to smuggle weapons, which supported the resistance against the [Israeli] occupation in prior periods. However, this function quickly become secondary. The tunnels’ main function now is to promote the largest corruption operation, which is sponsored by Hamas to collect taxes. Hence, Hamas’ [policy] is having severe negative consequences on the economic and social structure inside the Gaza Strip.

Getting rid of the tunnels and [corruption] epidemics that have permeated the Gaza Strip does not mean surrendering to Israel’s abhorrent blockade, or writing off the workforce of the poor people, who have paid a high price for this black market economy — 210 people were killed and 400 wounded and maimed [during smuggling operations through the tunnels].

However, there is a solution to this dilemma, which lies in establishing a new Egyptian-Palestinian agreement, according to which the Rafah crossing will be permanently open and official free trade between Egypt and Palestine will be regularized.

Efforts ought to be made in order to gain international recognition of such an agreement. This agreement could serve as a means of breaking the unjust Israeli siege and would also pave the way for the restoration of national unity, which cannot be achieved through Hamas alone.

Hamas seeks to deepen the [Palestinian] divide and strengthen the structure of its religious emirate. The agreement, on the other hand, would promote economic, political and social ties between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, allowing the [Palestinian] people to put an end to the blockade and establish a state.

Previous experiences show that achieving unity cannot come from above, but rather will emanate from continuous public pressure. Let us embark on the path of replacing the tunnels with bridges of communication and cooperation between the two peoples.

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