In 2004, it was reported that Israel was considering building a four kilometer wide, 15-25 meter deep moat around Gaza, in order to prevent weapons from being smuggled to Hamas. This conversation took place in the run-up to Israel’s Sharon-led disengagement from Gaza. It literal terms, it obviously went nowhere. (Although one might argue that Israel has long been trying to build a theoretical moat around Gaza.)
In 2007, following the Battle of Gaza in which Hamas forcibly removed Fatah from the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt virtually shut down the small piece of land sandwiched between them. At that point, Hamas started digging tunnels. A few led to Israel; the vast majority to Sinai.
These tunnels have been used to smuggle in weapons, munitions, food, building supplies, once even a lion intended for the Gaza zoo. According to a report by National Geographic, when the tunnels are functioning at full capacity, they employ some 15,000 people, with an economy built around the tunnels that employs tens of thousands more. Rafah even highlights the tunnels in their official city brochures.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Mubarak fell and the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, so it was widely assumed that tensions between Hamas and Egypt would recede. And for a while, they seemed to. But the tensions between the two never fully dissipated and recently, they played out in a surprising, and pungent, way.
Egypt began pumping sewage into dozens of these tunnels. Not exactly a moat, but certainty calls the concept to mind.
There are two components to this story that stood out in particular: Egypt’s explanation for the action and Hamas’ response to it.
According to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, this action was taken to prevent smuggling of weapons, not from Egypt into Gaza, but rather from Gaza into Sinai. Last August, 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed, the attackers are believed to have entered Sinai from Gaza through the tunnels. So the response did not come out of nowhere. But it certainly begs the question of how anything that Egypt wants to keep out of the Sinai is getting INTO Gaza in the first place.
Hamas’ response to the flooding was extremely muted, seemingly accepting of the tactic. Salah al-Bardawil, a Hamas official in Gaza, stated: “Egypt is a state of sovereignty and we do not impose on it anything. We address the Egyptian side about the issue and hope they will understand us and our needs. We trust the Egyptian leadership that they will not leave the Palestinian people alone.”
Needless to say, work is already well underway to pump and haul the waste water away and repair the tunnel’s damaged infrastructure. And thus, life goes on.
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