The Israeli government enforces strict rules on people entering and leaving Gaza via a lone pedestrian crossing at Erez, the checkpoint on the border with Israel. Israel prevents Gaza from operating an airport or seaport, and it regulates trade in and out of the territory, limiting some crucial items, such as building materials.
Now, with Egypt’s military-backed interim government shutting down the tunnels and largely closing its own pedestrian crossing, at Rafah, Gaza is increasingly shut off from the world.
The Egyptian army has begun bulldozing and blowing up houses on its side of the border near Rafah, destroying more than a dozen. Egyptian security officials this month leaked military plans to create a “buffer zone” hundreds of yards wide between the two sides, replicating the barren no-man’s-land that Israel enforces inside Gaza to keep Palestinians from approaching the Israeli border.
Hamas officials also said that the Egyptian military plans to dig a moat in the area and fill it with water to further thwart the smugglers who have burrowed hundreds of tunnels, complete with lights and trolley lines, since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.
‘This time feels different’
“We have not seen a period with this level of disruption, for this long a time, with this number of tunnels sealed or destroyed, and now coupled with the statements of the Egyptian government — this is new,” said Sari Bashi, executive director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which monitors trade and traffic to and from Gaza.
Before, when Egyptian officials threatened to limit tunnel traffic, Bashi said, they would always include an exemption for humanitarian or civilian needs and emphasize that they wanted to crack down on weapons or fighters. “Now their statements talk about buffer zones,” she said.
Hossam al-Meneai, a filmmaker who splits his time between Cairo and el-Arish, the capital of the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula, reported that “people are being arrested in large numbers” in areas near the tunnels.
“There are people being forcefully evacuated from their homes within the vicinity of Rafah — there is a 500-meter zone that they are trying to move people out of in order to destroy the tunnels,” he said.
A Gazan who owns and operates several tunnels and has relatives and trading partners on both sides of the border said the tunnels are so lucrative — to Hamas, smugglers and traders, as well as the Egyptian bureaucrats and military officers who take their share — that he could not imagine them closed for long.