Starving Gaza one tunnel at a time

January 22, 2018

The destruction of tunnels that bring crucial supplies into Gaza is worsening the already dire humanitarian crisis facing Palestinians, explains Daphna Thier.

ISRAEL--WITH Egyptian cooperation--struck and destroyed a major smuggling tunnel between Gaza and Egypt on January 13. The tunnel connected Gaza with Egypt, passing under Israeli territory for almost 200 yards.

Using a combination of air strikes and new military technology designed to locate and destroy underground tunnels, Israel is continuing its campaign to suffocate Gaza. The tunnel, which was a major artery for bringing crucial supplies into besieged Gaza, is the fourth Israel has located and demolished since October using this new technology.

The tunnel ran beneath the Kerem Shalom crossing, through which Israel has tightly controlled the passage of rationed supplies, including food and clothes.

These supplies have fallen far short of the needs of Gaza's 2 million inhabitants. Though Hamas, the political party that elected to power in Gaza, maintains that this was a civilian tunnel used for smuggling consumer goods restricted by Israel, and not weapons, Israel has stated that it plans to eliminate all underground such tunnels, regardless of their use.

IDF soldiers patrol the borders of Gaza near the Kerem Shalom crossing
IDF soldiers patrol the borders of Gaza near the Kerem Shalom crossing

ISRAEL HAS long claimed that the tunnels' primary purpose is to violate Israeli "sovereignty" and perpetrate acts of "terrorism" against it (such as the capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit).

However, it is Israel's siege of Gaza since 2007 that has turned these tunnels into lifelines that supply food, medicine, construction materials, computers, livestock, fuel, automobile parts and more.

Expensive, dangerous and susceptible to Israeli air strikes, hundreds of tunnels costing millions of dollars have been constructed over the last decade. Up to 15,000 people are employed directly in their operation, as well as many more engineers, truck drivers and shopkeepers.

Many of the tunnels are barely big enough to crawl through, and tunnel workers often labor six days a week for 12 hours at a time in cramped and precarious conditions. Injuries and fatalities resulting from gas explosions, electrocutions and air strikes are common.

Since the 1980s, tunnels began to appear along the border of the divided city of Rafah to connect its Egyptian and Gazan sides. The tunnels were usually dug by people who started from inside their own homes to conceal the entrance.

After the election of Hamas in 2006, Israel and Mubarak's Egypt imposed a blockade on Gaza from land, water and air. The tunnels under Rafah proliferated and became central to the subsistence of Gaza.

However, this underground economy, accounting for up to two-thirds of consumer goods in Gaza, has forced the population to accept black-market prices and in turn exacerbated their poverty.

Following the Arab Spring of 2011, during the brief period of democracy in Egypt, the Rafah border was reopened. However, after the military coup, Egypt's new ruler Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi again closed the Rafah crossing.

This is because the el-Sisi dictatorship and Israeli apartheid share a common enemy in Hamas, which is affiliated with the Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, ousted in the coup that brought el-Sisi to power.

In 2013, the Egyptian military began a concerted effort to shut down all the tunnels, which not only provide vital economic needs, but also supply tax revenue to the Hamas government.

The recent destruction of these tunnels is part of a larger Israeli campaign against Gaza, which has included the targeting of multiple resistance bases.

The anti-tunnel efforts also involve the construction of yet another Israeli barrier along the Gaza border. The barrier, which could cost more than $1.1 billion, is meant to reinforce the isolation of Gaza, prevent tunnels reaching Israel and provide a mean for the Israeli state to gather intelligence. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of 2018.

However, Israel has sought to avoid an all-out assault on Gaza while it conducts ongoing covert operations against Iranian-backed forces and Hezbollah militias in Syria.

FOR PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, the clampdown on Gaza as well as Israeli talk of annexing part of the West Bank are perhaps not much more than political maneuvering.

Given a green light by Trump's presidency and emboldened by his position on Jerusalem, Netanyahu's government is expanding these efforts despite the fact that, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "Hamas has sent a message through several channels, above all Egyptian intelligence, that it seeks to avoid an escalation of the recent violence with Israel."

Faced with mounting corruption charges and a possible legitimacy crisis, Netanyahu has returned to the well-worn tactic of using military action to win public opinion to his side.

Though he still remains the most popular candidate (or perhaps least unpopular, with polls showing him at 28 percent compared with 11 percent for the next major contenders), his Likud party is slightly down in the polls.

Other parties in his coalition have also experienced diminished numbers--in particular, the hard-right religious party Shas, whose leader Arie Dery is also under investigation for corruption. According to this recent poll, a coalition of the opposition parties may be able to block Netanyahu's coalition if elections were held soon.

Netanyahu may fail to secure his fifth term. A poll conducted last summer showed that 67 percent of Israelis believed that Netanyahu should step down if indicted, and a more recent poll reports that 52 percent believed he needed to step down at the end of his term. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of demonstrators have been protesting weekly, calling for his resignation.

As of now, there are four cases against Netanyahu regarding his corrupt dealings with the Israeli business elite. He is accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes, attempting to buy favorable media coverage, negotiating expensive submarine sales to the government, and promoting business deals that benefit his allies, friends and family.

In Trumpian style, his own son inadvertently corroborated one of the allegations when he was caught on a recording telling his friend, the son of an Israeli energy tycoon, to stop giving him a hard time over money for a prostitute when his father arranged a $20 billion deal for his friend's father.

Meanwhile, members of his government from the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid Parties have pushed for stepped-up attacks on Gaza, criticizing Netanyahu for not being forceful enough. Because Netanyahu's political strength has long derived from his tough stance on Palestinians, this has been a major pressure point.

THE DESTRUCTION of the tunnels and the construction of the barrier have pushed the Hamas government into greater crisis.

Israeli analyst Amos Harel points out that the decision not to respond to Israel's latest tunnel demolition "reflects the trap the organization finds itself in." While struggling to meet the needs of the people of Gaza, it is also plagued by political instability and inner strife. In the last several weeks, Hamas has arrested--and apparently tortured--Salafist and Islamic Jihadist militants that did not heed Hamas' call to end the rocket fire into Israel.

Thus, by undermining Hamas' rule right now, Israel reveals its true motives. Far from seeking peaceful relations with Gaza, Israel is doubling down on its embargo.

Often called an open-air prison, the siege on Gaza has created a soaring unemployment rate, which in 2017 was 46.6 percent, and some of the highest rates of poverty and food insecurity in the world. These realities have given rise to widespread anxiety, depression and hopelessness among Gazans.

Furthermore, humanitarian organizations are struggling to maintain the flow of aid to Gaza.

In 2016, Israeli restrictions on imports added nearly $10 million in logistical costs alone to the budget of the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which is the UN body that oversees aid to the besieged enclave. Though UNRWA creates jobs, supplies food and builds homes for victims of Israeli air strikes, Trump's State Department is cutting UNRWA's budget in half.

According to Gisha, the Israeli Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, less than 6,000 people in 2017 were able to leave Gaza with Israeli permits.

Gisha also reports that for more than six months, Israel sold Gaza only about 60 percent of the electricity it has in its capacity to supply, causing a massive "man-made electricity crisis" that affected "hospitals, schools, factories, and households [which] have had to contend with only between four and six hours of electricity, and often even less, followed by 12-16-hour outages."

Entire hospital wards were shut down for the duration, and more than 26 million gallons of untreated sewage was pumped daily into the Mediterranean Sea.

Another report from 2017 shed light on the expansion of Israel's bans on raw materials, equipment and machines. Only 30 percent of the cement necessary for reconstruction has been permitted into Gaza since 2014, and for almost a third of the year, crossings into Gaza were closed entirely.

That weapons are also smuggled through the tunnels does nothing to undermine their legitimacy. It is the undeniable right--enshrined in international law--of an occupied people to resist occupation, including by means of armed struggle.

Given that Israel has the world's fourth-largest military and some of the world's most advanced weaponry, Gaza's dependence on primitive armaments smuggled through tunnels leaves Palestinians essentially defenseless in the face of Israel's siege, repeated air strikes and a series of devastating all-out assaults carried out during the last decade, most recently in 2014.

But these tunnels also serve as a vital lifeline for a starving population that Israel is willing to let die.

The real solution to the dangerous conditions of the tunnels, the smuggling and the black market running rampant in Gaza is free and open borders. We stand for the unconditional right of Palestinians to control their own borders and for an end to the siege on Gaza.

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