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Close Gaza tunnels? Some Palestinians say yes.

Gaza tunnels to Egypt provide Palestinians with needed goods that account for at least 80 percent of Gaza's total imports. While many see it as a lifeline, others say smuggling can destabilize.

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"The tunnels are destroying Gazan society. Illegality destroys," says John Ging, the director of operations for the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza. "A civilized society builds itself around the rule of law. But there is no legal economy here; it is truly just a tunnel economy. And this is one very clear example of how Gaza is being forced down the wrong track." The Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights in Gaza says at least 130 people have died in the tunnels since 2007, in Israeli airstrikes and collapses. Rights groups here say Hamas fails to implement any safety regulations for the industry it controls and relies on for cash and weapons. The smuggling has helped entrench Hamas, analysts say.

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"The smuggling increases the population's dependence on those groups in Gaza which are not part of the formal economy, those who were active in smuggling before the closure," says Nicolas Pelham, a Jerusalem-based political analyst who consults for the International Crisis Group (ICG). "It's a way of delegitimizing the normal supply routes into Gaza, and those with business ties to Israel, and creating a power base for this new elite."

Weapons are also a concern. Guns and explosives have been pouring into Gaza, still struggling to recover from last year's war and with an already deeply entrenched weapons culture.

No other option?

But aid workers say Gazans have no other option in the face of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

Mr. Khozendar says if Egypt stops the smuggling but Israel doesn't open its own borders, Israel should at least facilitate a special crossing for Gaza's traditional private sector. He says such an initiative would undermine what he calls the "criminal tunnel industry" and boost those businesses he says want economic prosperity without a political agenda.

"We don't want the tunnels, and Israel doesn't want us. So open up the sea. Open a special corridor so we can at least trade with the West Bank," says Khozendar. "One week of real commercial trade with either Israel or the West Bank would close one of the tunnels for a month."

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