In Gaza's smuggling tunnels, Egypt's interests trump Brotherhood ties
Egypt has closed some of Gaza's tunnels, causing economic pain and surprising some who expected more sympathetic policies because of ties between the two governments.
Rafah, Egypt; and Gaza City, Gaza
As Egypt's closure of some of the smuggling tunnels from Gaza drives up prices in the tiny coastal enclave, it has also spurred anger toward Egypt’s new Islamist president for throttling one of Gaza's main sources of goods.Skip to next paragraph
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Egypt began destroying tunnels as part of a security crackdown in the Sinai after militants attacked an Egyptian army checkpoint near Rafah on Aug. 5, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers before crossing the border to attack Israel.
The operation has slowed the tunnel trade, leading to price increases in Gaza on items like building materials and food. The Hamas government has protested the closure of tunnels, but it has also used the opportunity to press Egypt to allow legal trade between the two sides and abolish the tunnels entirely.
While Hamas, an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, might have expected a friendlier partner across the border when the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi became president, President Morsi has rebuffed the request for a free trade zone while clamping down on smuggling.
The new president is simply putting his interests, and those of Egypt, ahead of ideological connections with Hamas, says Khalil Al Anani, a scholar at Durham University in Britain who studies Islamist groups.
“I don't think that President Morsi will jeopardize his political position in Egypt to satisfy Hamas,” says Dr. Anani. “Some people mix between the ideological relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza. When it comes to reality, politics is the main thing, not ideology.”
A boon for one party
The tunnels have been a vital part of Gaza’s economy since Israel began a siege of the coastal enclave in 2007, when Hamas, which maintains an armed wing and whose charter calls for the destruction of Israel, came to power in Gaza. While Israel has since greatly relaxed the blockade, and sends in hundreds of truckloads of basic goods like food every day through the Kerem Shalom crossing, Gaza still depends on the tunnels, especially for goods Israel doesn’t allow, like building materials.
On the Egyptian side, the tunnel trade has largely flourished in the lawless northern Sinai, where both smugglers and militants have operated with increasing freedom in a security vacuum since the uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak last year. But the August attack that killed 16 soldiers spurred Morsi to assert authority in Sinai, and he sent thousands of troops into the peninsula.
After the attack, the Hamas government quickly closed the tunnels to human traffic to prevent suspects from fleeing to Gaza, and announced it did not support attacks on Israel from its neighbor's territory.
Unplacated by Hamas's moves, Egyptian security forces destroyed several dozen tunnels, and increased patrols in the area near the border. While many tunnel owners have now resumed business, many work only at night, when police rarely venture into the area. The reduced capacity, and increased risk, has seen smuggling costs soar.