Gazans want open borders, not handouts

Even some tunnel smugglers who profit from Gaza's blockaded borders say they'd rather import legally.

Tunnel in gaza 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
Tunnel in gaza 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
As top diplomats pledged billions of dollars for war-ravaged Gaza on Monday, ordinary people here - from merchants to housewives - said they'd rather have open borders than handouts. Even some tunnel smugglers who profit from Gaza's blockaded borders say they'd rather import legally through open crossings than risk Israeli bombing raids and shaft collapses. "I want a cease-fire and open borders. Crossings are better than tunnels," said 22-year-old smuggler Abu Mahmoud, leaning over a shaft as workers tried to clear a 300-foot stretch of tunnel that had collapsed under an Israeli airstrike. The closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after a violent Hamas takeover in June 2007, has deepened poverty and fostered militancy. A three-week military offensive in Gaza by Israel caused considerable destruction but left the militants in power. Now donor countries have to find a way to rebuild Gaza. On Monday in Egypt, donors pledged a total of $5.2 billion for Gaza and Hamas' main rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Aid officials say reconstruction is only possible with open borders. But Israel and Egypt have set conditions that include a complicated prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, and reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas. Abbas sought at least $2.8 billion in new aid from the donors' conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik. Nearly double that amount was pledged, leading Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah to declare the conference a success. But Palestinians say there will be no real success until the borders are opened. In Gaza City, car parts dealer Nayef Masharawi, 60, said the blockade has been bad for business. He noted that a gallon of Egyptian motor oil bought from tunnel smugglers costs nearly twice as much as the superior product he used to import from Israel. His last shipment from Israel arrived in May 2007, a month before the Hamas takeover. The shopkeeper said he has fond memories of the 1970s, when he would drive from Gaza City to his Mercedes supplier in the Israeli port city of Haifa without borders or checkpoints. At the upscale Delice Cafe in Gaza City, patrons paid little attention to speeches from the conference broadcast live on a TV in the corner. "I don't think we can derive hope from such a meeting," said civil engineering student Wassim Jaradat, 24, sitting at a table with two friends and sipping cappuccino. "I don't think any immediate results will be seen on the ground." However, housewife Sulafa Ayyad said she was hoping to claim compensation for damage to her two-story home in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood. The house, built with savings from her husband Ibrahim's years as a laborer in Israel, was hit by bullets and shrapnel. Ayyad, 33, said that so far, the family has received only $200 from a neighborhood welfare committee. She said there was some confusion over whether the family should get emergency aid from Hamas or a UN aid agency for refugees. "I am so glad that the world supports us, but I voice my hope that all the promises and pledges will reach the people who were affected by the war," she said. "I am one of them, but until this minute, they fed us only words, not deeds." Gaza's desperation is perhaps most keenly felt in the border town of Rafah, near Egypt, where hundreds of young men report to work every day in smuggling tunnels. Israeli warplanes keep bombing the tunnels because smugglers bring in not only consumer goods, but also weapons and cash for Hamas. On Monday, for example, Egyptian police found about 1,000 pounds of TNT hidden in sacks near the border with the Gaza Strip, a security official said. Police have found 10 tunnels north of Rafah crossing during the past 48 hours. Five tunnel workers died Sunday when a tunnel collapsed from heavy rains. One of them was Ahmed Abu Samhadaneh, 20, a second-year university student. He had supported his parents and seven siblings with tunnel work for the past year, as the only breadwinner. His shaken father Issam, standing next to Ahmed's freshly dug grave, blamed the greed of his son's employer and the blockade. "If the border was open, my son would still be alive today," he said. "He wouldn't have to go work in the tunnels."