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Gaza minister: Egypt tunnel crackdown will fail

Feb. 20, 2013 8:40 P.M. (Updated: Feb. 23, 2013 5:34 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- Egypt's crackdown on smuggling tunnels to the Gaza Strip will not succeed unless alternatives to importing produce are provided, an official in Gaza's Hamas-run government said Wednesday.

Several days ago, Egyptian forces began flooding smuggling tunnels under the Gaza border in a campaign to shut them down. The tunnels have provided a lifeline to Palestinians since Israel intensified its blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

"This is not the first time the Egyptian authorities have tried to shut down the tunnels, but neither of of the attempts have been successful," Minister of Economy Alaa Rafati told Ma'an.

The government in Gaza has informed Cairo several times that an official commercial route should be opened along the border, including a duty-free zone, Rafati said.

"We are interested in entry of all goods via Rafah crossing," the minister said.

Rafati said that despite the flooding of tunnels, all goods, including fuel, were still entering the enclave.

"Some Egyptian commanders are flooding tunnels on their own for personal interests," he added.

Muhammad al-Abadla, a member of the union of gas station owners, said fuel supplies had been affected by the Egyptian crackdown but that the situation was not critical.

Dozens of tunnels had been destroyed since last August following the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in a militant attack near the Gaza fence.

Cairo said some of the gunmen had crossed into Egypt via the tunnels -- a charge denied by Palestinians -- and ordered an immediate crackdown.

The move surprised and angered Gaza's rulers, which had hoped for much better ties with Cairo following the election last year of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, an Islamist who is ideologically close to Hamas.

While Gaza's rulers have been reluctant to criticise Mursi in public, ordinary Gazans are slightly more vocal.

"Egyptian measures against tunnels have worsened since the election of Mursi. Our Hamas brothers thought he would open up Gaza. I guess they were wrong," said a tunnel owner, who identified himself only as Ayed, fearing reprisal.

"Perhaps 150 or 200 tunnels have been shut since the Sinai attack. This is the Mursi era," he added.

The tunnellers fear the water being pumped underground might collapse the passage ways, with possible disastrous consequences.

"Water can cause cracks in the wall and may cause the collapse of the tunnel. It may kill people," said Ahmed al-Shaer, a tunnel worker whose cousin died a year ago when a tunnel caved in on him.

Six Palestinians died in January in tunnel implosions, raising the death toll amongst workers to 233 since 2007, according to human rights groups, including an estimated 20 who died in various Israeli air attacks on the border lands.

At one stage an estimated 2,500-3,000 tunnels snaked their way under the desert fence but the network has shrunk markedly since 2010, when Israel eased some of the limits they imposed on imports into the coastal enclave.

All goods still have to be screened before entering Gaza and Israel says some restrictions must remain on items that could be used to make or to store weapons.

This ensures the tunnels are still active, particularly to bring in building materials. Hamas also prefers using the tunnels to smuggle in fuel, thereby avoiding custom dues that are payable on oil crossing via Israel.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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