Egypt Seals Off Most Tunnels to Gaza
Palestinians in the Gaza Strip say there is a growing shortage of fuel after Egypt sealed off 80 percent of the hundreds of tunnels that carried goods from Egypt into Gaza. The Egyptian move is part of a crackdown on gunmen in the Sinai Peninsula, although Gazans say it is has political motives as well.
“There are very few cars on the road and people line up for hours to get just a few liters of gas,” Omar Shaaban, an economist in Gaza told The Media Line. “There is only about 25 percent of the quantity that is needed.”
The shortage is also affecting municipal services such as sewage treatment plants which also run on fuel. Municipal officials in Gaza say they’ve began dumping untreated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea since they don’t have fuel to run the generators.
Egypt is sealing off the tunnels as part of its campaign against gunmen in the Sinai peninsula. Last August, insurgents in Sinai killed 16 Egyptian policemen. Egypt worries the Sinai gunmen could receive weapons through the tunnels and could even escape to Gaza.
Israeli officials say they are prepared to increase the sale of fuel to Gaza if needed. They also say there is no humanitarian crisis in the densely populated Gaza Strip.
“Israel is making every possible effort in order to enable the transfer of goods into the Gaza Strip given the current policy,” Guy Inbar, the spokesman for the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) told The Media Line."We emphasize that Israel does not limit the amount of goods transferred to Gaza and that the Kerem Shalom crossing has yet to reach its maximum capacity. As for today, it is possible to transfer 400 trucks every day, but the demand from Gaza is lower, and on an average day we receive requests for about 300 trucks.”
Inbar said that in the last three weeks, 165 fuel tankers have passed via Kerem Shalom at the request of the Palestinians from Gaza.
However, Israeli fuel is three times more expensive than Egyptian fuel that came through the tunnels and using Israeli fuel is expected to lead to sharp price increases.
Israeli officials say there are also shortages of construction materials such as cement and that large building projects sponsored by Qatar have been frozen.
Israel continues to sharply limit the amount of construction materials allowed into Gaza saying they could be used to build rockets as well as houses.
Israel imposed restrictions on goods going into Gaza in 2006 after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was released in exchange for 1000 Palestinian prisoners in 2011. In 2007, when Hamas took over sole control of the government in Gaza, Israel tightened the restrictions. The US and Israel see Hamas as a terrorist organization.
In response, Hamas allowed Palestinians in Gaza to dig hundreds of tunnels between the town of Rafah in Gaza and the Egyptian part of Rafah. The tunnels became a conduit for everything from breakfast cereal to bombs to car parts to live animals. Hamas taxed the goods coming through the tunnels as it would tax any imported goods.
Palestinians in Gaza say that as concerned as they are about the gas shortage they are concerned about their future relationship with Egypt even more. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party of recently deposed Egyptian leader Mohamed Morsi. During the year Morsi was in power, ties between Gaza and Egypt grew stronger.
Now, however, the transitional Egyptian government has launched an attack on Hamas. Officials in Cairo said Morsi had conspired with Hamas to carry out attacks on Egyptian soldiers and police in Sinai, charges Hamas refutes.
“People here are very angry about what Egypt is doing,” economist Omar Shaaban said. “For us in Gaza, Egypt used to be a secure place. Now Palestinian students in Egypt are afraid to go outside.”
There are two exits from Gaza. The first, the Erez Crossing, has been closed to all but humanitarian cases since 2006. The Rafah Crossing has been open only intermittently. In recent weeks, Palestinians say, only a trickle of Palestinians have been allowed to cross through Rafah, meaning it can take several days before they are allowed through.
Gaza’s 1.6 million inhabitants say they value their close ties with Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation with 85 million people. They say that while they are concerned about the shortages of fuel and building materials they are even more worried that ties with Egypt will continue to be strained.