Gaza Palestinians: Egypt ‘teaching Israel new tricks’

As Sisi’s government steps up plans to further isolate the Gaza Strip, Palestinians struggle for basic needs to survive.

Egypt border with Gaza
Sisi's government demolished '255 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings' along the border, according to HRW [Ezz Zanoun/Al Jazeera]

Rafah, Gaza Strip – Eyad Musbah Abu Thar, 31, is a father of eight whose Rafah home lies within eyesight of Egyptian military positions. 

“When the [Egyptian army] pumps water into the tunnels … [it] reaches all the way to our home. My children can’t play outside,” Abu Thar said. He told Al Jazeera that the situation is getting “worse and worse”. 

The family lives in a neighbourhood pockmarked with bullet holes from Israel’s war on Gaza last year, the third major conflict since 2008.

But Abu Thar says that the Egyptians are adding to the destruction: “Shots have been fired at our home” over the past weeks, and the sound of Egypt bombing the alleged positions of armed groups active in the Sinai Peninsula is “always audible”.

September was a chaotic month on the embattled frontier. Egyptian forces had bombed, flooded, and shot at the Palestinian side of Rafah, the city directly across the border. In contrast, October started out calm.

That changed on October 23, when Egyptian military forces in the Sinai Peninsula renewed efforts to drown out smuggling tunnels that cross its border into the besieged Gaza Strip.

Along with aerial bombardments, the Egyptians resumed pumping seawater into known smuggling tunnels.

RELATED: Egypt’s siege on Gaza: ‘Rafah opens only for the dead’

On October 25, 2014, the Rafah border crossing was shut by the Egyptian authorities after 33 members of the Egyptian army were killed in the Sinai. Egyptian media accused Hamas, which governs the Gaza strip, of being responsible for the attack although Cairo did not officially point the finger at the group. 

Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza – which residents refer to as an “open-air prison” – since 2007, with the Rafah crossing frequently closed.


The Egyptian army subsequently launched a military operation in the Sinai, razing homes to create a kilometre-wide buffer zone bordering the Gaza Strip, and closed the Rafah border crossing, aiming to destroy Gaza’s tunnels.

In late September, Egypt ramped up its efforts to solidify the separation of Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula.

In addition to pumping water into the smuggling tunnels previously used to transfer goods necessary for Gaza residents across the border, the Egyptian military also began construction on what some referred to as a “medieval moat” – a 20-metre-deep trench filled with water from the Mediterranean Sea.

The moat would ensure that further tunnel construction would be impossible.

Palestinians in Gaza once relied on the tunnels to provide them with the most basic goods, including food and medicine [File: AP]
Palestinians in Gaza once relied on the tunnels to provide them with the most basic goods, including food and medicine [File: AP]

Egypt says that this is a security measure, as the Sinai Peninsula has been wracked with armed attacks from the armed group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has pledged itself to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

The Egyptian military says that the armed group receives its arms from Gaza via the tunnels, though this allegation has not been substantiated.

UpFront – Reality Check: Gaza is still occupied

A representative from Human Rights Watch (HRW), who spoke with Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity, says that this reasoning doesn’t hold water: “Most of the heavy weapons in use in the Sinai … have likely been smuggled from Libya and bought, stockpiled, and sold within the Sinai.”

HRW’s representative believes that Egypt’s actions on the Sinai-Gaza border have been heavy-handed.

The organisation released a report in late September entitled “Look for another Homeland“, alleging that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military government in Egypt, which took power in 2013 from the democratically elected Mohamed Morsi in a military coup, has demolished “255 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings” on the Egyptian side of the frontier, in an attempt to establish an “empty, secured border”.

HRW’s representative also believes the tunnel flooding is causing needless harm to the blockaded Palestinian enclave, as Egypt likely possessed the capability to detect and eliminate specific tunnels without resorting to the arbitrary destruction of a large buffer zone.

According to media reports, in 2009, the US Army Corps of Engineers had trained Egyptian troops to use advanced technological equipment that measure ground fluctuations to indicate tunnel-digging.

Then, in August 2013, the US defence department awarded the security contractor Raytheon a $9.9m contract to continue research and development in Egypt on its version of this technology, which is known as a “vibration-sensing laser radar”.

“We know that [the Egyptians] have received training and that a Raytheon contract was awarded in 2013 to aid the Egyptian military. These are open questions; Egypt has not commented at all on why they’ve chosen [to flood the tunnels]. That characterises the whole operation … [as being] done with complete opacity,” HRW’s representative continued.

The close relations between Israel and Egypt cannot be discounted, either. The Sisi government has advocated for more Arab states to sign Egypt’s 40-year peace agreement with Israel.

“It appears the actions on the Gaza-Sinai border are as important to Israel’s security as [they are to] Egypt’s,” the representative added as a final thought. 

RELATED: Anatomy of a Gaza smuggling tunnel

The destruction of these tunnels has a severe economic and humanitarian effect on Gaza as well. At their peak, the tunnels contributed around $700m to Gaza’s economy.

The Egyptians have made it impossible to live here. They have been so brutal with us. They're teaching the Israelis new tricks.

by Eyad Musbah Abu Thar, Palestinian resident of Rafah

About 15,000 workers and 25,000 traders fuelled the tunnel economy, a huge help to the Strip, which faces the world’s highest unemployment rate at 43 percent, according to the World Bank.

Reconstruction materials, luxury goods, and much-needed medical supplies travelled through these subterranean passageways.

In June 2014, the UK-based Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) reported on the “chronic lack” of medicine in Gaza. According to Fikr Shaltoot, the current MAP programme director, the problem hasn’t improved.

Shaltoot told Al Jazeera that “roughly 30 percent” of essential medicine stocks were at zero-stock supply, meaning there is only a one-month supply.

Medications she cited as being widely unavailable include insulin for diabetics, growth hormones for children with medical afflictions that limit development, and special milk formula for children with metabolic disorders.

Shortages also drive up prices. “The cost of the medicine that comes through the [Egyptian border],” both the tunnels and the Rafah crossing, “is lower than the ones [that] come through Israel”, Shaltoot remarked.

Often, people spend days walking from one healthcare centre to another, searching for in-stock medicines they can afford.

“It’s very difficult,” she said.

Back at his home in Rafah, Abu Thar related his first-hand experience with the economic and healthcare troubles the flooding has caused. “When Morsi was in power, things were easier. I drove a small motorbike between Gaza and the Sinai, delivering goods to both sides. Since Sisi took power, I’ve been out of work.”

Abu Thar says that acquiring food, clothes, and medicine has been a daily struggle since then. “The Egyptians have made it impossible to live here. They have been so brutal with us. They’re teaching the Israelis new tricks.”

Follow Creede Newton on Twitter: @creedenewton

Source: Al Jazeera