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Egypt’s military is in the midst of yet another major operation tasked with destroying the border tunnels used for underground commerce between Rafah and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
This time around, the military says it is utilizing a new method: flooding the tunnels.
Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha, a former governor of North Sinai, says their strategy is for the water to stay in the tunnels long enough to weaken their structure until the point of collapse.
Sources in Sinai, however, say that the water is being drained out and announced that the targeted tunnels would be functional again in a week.
Community leaders in Sinai have dubbed the flooding a superficial solution to the failing state of security in the area, and will have little results as it disregards the root causes of the problem.
More so, they say that the tunnel business is not something that can be feasibly exterminated.
The Rafah crossing is the only access point into Gaza, where the siege imposed by Israel since Hamas came into power in 2007, has created a humanitarian crisis by making supplies of basic foods, medicine and energy scarce.
While the passage of Palestinians through the Rafah crossing was made easier following the 25 January uprising, commercial interaction is not allowed via the borders.
As a result, the tunnel business has continued to boom. It is not only a lifeline of supplies, but also a thriving source of livelihood for many in the area.
Hamas officials have condemned the Egyptian government’s moves to flood the tunnels, saying it is the only way Gazans can face Israel’s “brutal blockade,” AFP reported.
The military has identified 225 tunnels tying Gaza to Rafah, and used to transfer a variety of goods starting from medicine and food to construction material. They are also used for human trafficking and weapons smuggling.
On the one side, Gazans count on the tunnels to receive basic needs, and on the other, Sinai Bedouins rake in huge profits from the business. Consequently, efforts to end the tunnel trade are always met with strong resistance from both.
“No one can close these tunnels. If they destroy them, new tunnels will be created immediately,” says Marei Arar, a Salafi leader in Rafah.
Arar says that reducing the security crisis in Sinai to the tunnels issue is a continuation of Mubarak-era policies, where the state still depends on punitive measures against Sinai residents instead of much-needed conciliatory methods.
“The people of Sinai have suffered a lot and need someone to remove the effects of oppression ... not to punish them.
“The solution to the security crisis in Sinai is for the state to start treating the people of Sinai as human beings who deserve ... and start making up for decades of oppression and injustice,” he adds.
Statements by the military regarding the operation suggest a reliance on force rather than reconciliation, affirming that the operation will continue until all the tunnels are destroyed. Officials have said there will be no negotiations with whom they’ve dubbed “criminals” involved in the smuggling.
The people of Sinai have long suffered from the state’s oppressive practices as well as from police brutality. Arar argues that unless this animosity between Bedouins and the state is addressed, violence will continue.
The pipelines delivering gas exports to Israel have been bombed over 15 times in the last two years, and in recent months, unknown gunmen have attacked several military checkpoints. These not only highlight the failure of security in the area, they also underline the lingering negative sentiment toward the state.
Arar says that investigations have never proven that tunnels are the reason for these incidents, adding that deeper historical causes that have led to the security crisis in Sinai need to be examined.
Unless an alternative is presented in the form of a legal commercial exchange though the Rafah crossing, people will not allow for the closure of the tunnels, Arar says.
“The solution is for the Egyptian state to open the crossing for commercial exchange, then we will close the tunnels. But closing the tunnels and leaving our brothers in Gaza to die is something that we can’t do,” he adds.
So far, the determination of the people in Gaza and Rafah to maintain the tunnel trade has triumphed over the state’s attempts to close them down. In this context, reconciling with the people of Sinai and seeking their cooperation becomes the necessary course of action.
Shousha explains that these campaigns usually destroy only the opening of the tunnel and not its core, which makes it easy for smugglers to create another opening and get back to business.
Destroying the core of the tunnels requires sophisticated air-to-surface missiles, he adds, which is not possible due to the presence of houses around the tunnels.
The destruction of the tunnels is made more difficult since many of their openings are concealed inside houses, making them difficult to detect, says Shousha.
Ashraf Ayoub, an activist in Arish, says, “The attempts fail because they are approaching Sinai with a security rather than a developmental approach.
“They are destroying the tunnels but not the conditions that led to the creation of the tunnels — they need to deal with the problem and not the symptom.”
Ayoub blames the state for not developing Sinai with the goal of transforming it into an urban, rather than desert community.
He further says that closing off the tunnels without offering alternatives will augment security threats as the people in Gaza, desperate for supplies, may breach the borders altogether.
The solution, he also argues, is to open up borders for commercial trade.