(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
GAZA - Egypt's crackdown on smuggling tunnels along its
border with the Gaza Strip is making shortages ever tighter and has forced the
enclave's Islamist Hamas rulers to consider urgent alternatives.
officials asked Egypt late on Monday to consider alternative trade routes, such
as a free trade zone, a direct deal that could boost Hamas tax revenues and
circumvent rival Fatah's and Israel's control of official imports to
Egypt started closing the tunnels after the Aug. 5 attack in Sinai
when gunmen killed 16 Egyptian soldiers
. Egypt suspects the tunnels were used by
some of the militants. Hamas says no-one from Gaza was involved in the
On Saturday, hundreds of Hamas supporters protested at the Gaza
border, demanding that Cairo stop sealing tunnels, chanting: "Closing the
tunnels is a death sentence for Gaza." Israel has imposed a blockade on Gaza
since 2007 when Hamas seized control by ousting Fatah forces of Palestinian
President Mahmoud Abbas. It says the blockade is aimed at stopping weapons and
other military materials reaching Hamas.
Last year Egypt allowed more
people to cross at the border with Gaza
in the town of Rafah but it is used only
for travel, not goods. Officially, goods enter Gaza only through
Israel allows in fuel and building materials mainly for United
Nations-funded projects but not for private use. Hamas official Ibrahim Jaber of
Gaza's Ministry of Planning said that in 2011 some $1 billion worth of goods
came in via Israel.
Maher Al-Tabbaa, a Gaza-based economist, said that 30
percent of Gaza's goods come from the tunnels. Tunnelers say 80 percent of food
sold in Gaza comes through the tunnels.
"If tunnels are closed there will
be a complete collapse in Gaza. It would suffer an economic catastrophe," he
The tunnels have been used to import anything from food to
construction materials, fuel and cars, and militants have also used them to
import munitions used to attack Israel, which has targeted some of the tunnels
with air strikes.
"The tunnel business is drying up and Egyptian security
forces are working day and night to seal the tunnels
. In one area along the
border 180 tunnels have been closed," tunnel owner Abu Abdallah told
He said that the clampdown had led to a rise in food prices in
the territory and that construction materials such as cement and steel had also
become more expensive.
"The construction boom in Gaza will come to a halt
soon as all tunnels that used to bring in gravel have been blocked by Egyptian
security," said Abdallah, who employs 40 people.
Ali, a tunneler for the
past five years, said the import of building materials was becoming impossible
because Egyptian suppliers were raising their prices, while Hamas was not
allowing them to follow suit.
"A tonne of cement now costs 400 shekels
(about $100) but Hamas forces us to sell at 370 shekels, which means I will lose
even before paying the workers who pull the goods through the tunnel," Ali told
"I and many others have stopped working because Hamas
regulations do not take our losses into account," he said.
El-Kass, whose family owns a Gaza City supermarket, said dairy products were in
Hamas officials have urged Egypt to allow Rafah crossing to
be used for goods also but Cairo has been reluctant to pursue changes to
international agreements with Israel and other Western nations which stipulate
that Rafah is only for travel.
Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail
Haniyeh, mooted setting up a free trade area
between Gaza and Egypt at a meeting
on Monday night with Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, a Hamas government
official told Reuters from Cairo.
"We explained the concept in detail ...
the idea is to alleviate the economic hardship in Gaza," Taher al-Nono
An Egyptian official told Reuters that the proposal was made at the
meeting but that it was too early for a response.
officials fear that such a deal might encourage Hamas to finally shun a stalled
Egyptian-drafted reconciliation pact to end a rift with Fatah.