Hamas in Gaza is running out of friends


A Palestinian worker stands at the entrance to smuggling tunnels along the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt, near the southern town of Rafah, on July 19. (Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images)
August 24, 2013

Emad the smuggler was covered in dust, watching buckets of cement and gravel emerge on a crude trolley from the bowels of his tunnel beneath the Egyptian border.

He is one of the few still doing this kind of work.

In the weeks since Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in a coup and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood were declared enemies of the state, Egypt’s military has shut down most of the tunnels that serve as a lifeline for Hamas, the Islamist political and militant organization that governs the Gaza Strip.

“The army now runs Egypt, and the army hates Hamas,” said Emad, who declined to give his full name because the tunnels are, at least technically, illegal. “They could care less what happens to Gaza.”

Under Morsi, hundreds of tunnels were allowed to flourish. Now there are a few dozen. So, fuel prices in Gaza are soaring. Orders for steel and cement go unfilled. Projects to repave roads, build public housing and repair crumbling infrastructure in the impoverished Palestinian enclave have stopped.

Egypt’s new military-led interim government is openly hostile toward Hamas, which was born of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s. Hamas was ecstatic when Morsi was elected president. But with its close ally now detained at an undisclosed location, the movement is finding itself more isolated than it has been in years.

With the closure of the smuggling tunnels, long lines of idled cars await the sporadic opening of gasoline stations. Electricity, always dodgy here, especially in the heat of summer, has become even more unreliable because of the lack of fuel to run the generators. And forget about speciality items. Only a few Mercedes-Benz sedans are moving through the underground corridor these days.

Many of the tunnels were dug after Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007 and Israel and Egypt responded by closing borders. Over time, Israel and Egypt again opened crossings to the territory of nearly 1.7 million people.

Though it is now possible to move goods into Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, Israel restricts certain items it says risk being diverted to terrorist activities — things such as concrete and irrigation pipes, which Israel says could be used to make bunkers and rockets.

With the opening of Kerem Shalom, which is operating at half capacity, Gazans could get most of their goods via Israel. But instead, they use the tunnels for fuel, cooking oil and building materials — and some luxury items — that are cheaper in Egypt because they are subsidized by the government or banned to import by the Israelis.

Hamas and other militant factions also use the tunnels to smuggle weapons and personnel. Exactly why the Egyptian military has closed so many tunnels, but not all, is unclear. Gazans assume they are being punished.

Egyptian authorities are investigating allegations that Morsi conspired with Hamas during the country’s 2011 uprising against former leader Hosni Mubarak.

In Cairo, state and private media accuse Gaza’s leadership of stoking terrorism in the restive Sinai Peninsula, where last week 25 police recruits were kidnapped by alleged militants and shot dead on the side of the road.

Hamas insists it had nothing to do with the attack on Egyptian forces in Sinai. “Egyptian security is very important to us,” said Ahmad Yosef, a former adviser to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. “We are in contact daily with the Egyptian intelligence services.”

Yosef said Hamas has asked the Egyptian military to provide proof that Hamas has supplied weapons or fighters to the Sinai, “and they cannot.”

“We are not taking sides,” he said.

Last month, Hamas shut down two news media bureaus in Gaza, saying they had presented “false news” about the Islamist government’s role in Egypt. Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel and Palestinian Ma’an News Agency remained closed. Directors of the new outlets deny the charges.

Last week, a group calling itself Tamarod Gaza released a video on its Facebook page calling for protests against the Hamas government on Nov. 11. “Tamarod,” meaning “rebellion” or “mutiny” in Arabic, is the same word used by the Egyptian youth movement that helped to topple Morsi.

In an e-mail exchange, a man who claimed to have a leadership role in Tamarod Gaza said the group was founded by Palestinian youths against Hamas, which he described as corrupt and oppressive. He said the group is calling for elections.

The Internet campaign was enough to get Gazans talking, which drew a quick response from Hamas officials.

“The real mutiny should be against the Israeli occupation and its collaborators,” said Abdul Salam, general secretary for the prime minister’s office in Gaza.

According to news reports from Gaza, Hamas police have been detaining alleged members of the Tamarod movement.

“We are in a critical situation, at the point of a real crisis,” said Hatem Owida, deputy economic minister for the Hamas government.

Owida said the Egyptians have stopped between 80 and 90 percent of the tunnel traffic by flooding tunnels and bulldozing entrances on their sides.

When tunnel traffic was booming, official unemployment in Gaza dropped to 27 percent, down from earlier highs of 40 percent, according to the economic ministry. Now 40,000 jobs tied indirectly to the tunnel economy are at risk, the deputy economic minister said.

The tunnels also supply tax revenue for Hamas, amounting to about 10 percent of the government’s budget, Owida said.

Israeli military and civilian officials who oversee Israel’s single commercial border crossing into Gaza at Kerem Shalom say that the number of trucks from Israel has increased more than 30 percent in recent weeks and that Gazans are importing substantial quantities of Israeli gasoline for the first time since Hamas took power.

“The recent events in Egypt represent a huge loss for Hamas,” said an Israeli army officer who monitors the crossings and declined to be quoted by name because of security concerns. “Believe me, if they are buying benzene from us? They are hurting.”

Israeli gas costs about twice as much as the government-subsidized fuel smuggled in from Egypt.

Some analysts say what is bad for Hamas is good for Israel, but in recent months, Israeli military commanders have praised Hamas for keeping law and order in the coastal strip and preventing more radical factions in Gaza from firing rockets at Israel.

“It’s been like a honeymoon these days between Hamas and Israel,” said Amos Harel, chief military correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz.

But Hamas is undeniably losing friends. Hamas has disappointed its patrons in Iran and vexed its allies in Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Shiite political and militant organization, by supporting the Sunni rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Until the toppling of Morsi, Hamas could count on Egypt for some protection. But not now.

With its options limited, Hamas may just hunker down, or the movement may seek reconciliation with its longtime political rival, Fatah, which controls the West Bank. But recent attempts to mend ties have failed, and the Hamas leadership has condemned Fatah and its leader, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, for participating in U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Israelis.

“Instead of getting support from Egypt, Hamas could try to compromise with Fatah. But there is no consensus on that topic, or at least it is not discussed in public,” said Menachem Klein, a professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel who monitors activities in Gaza.

“I am not sure that Hamas has a Plan B,” he said.

Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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