With more restrictions placed on the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and access to the Palestinian territory’s smuggling tunnels increasingly blocked, human rights groups say Gaza’s 1.6 million residents are unfairly being punished for the attack on an Egyptian military base in Sinai.
“Until now, there are no names of anybody from Gaza that have been made public as having committed the crime,” Wael Al-Qarra from the Gaza-based Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, told IPS. “But on the other side, we have been immediately put under punishment. Immediately. We, the people, the civilians, the citizens of Gaza, are the ones who are punished for what is happening.”
On Aug. 5, an unknown armed group killed 16 Egyptian border guards in the northern Sinai peninsula, before storming the Israeli border. In response, hundreds of Egyptian troops have been deployed to the area to tackle militant groups. It is the largest Egyptian military presence in Sinai in decades.
Following the attack, the nearby Gaza Strip was almost entirely sealed, with the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt closed and many Palestinians stranded on either side.
Following the attack, the nearby Gaza Strip was almost entirely sealed, with the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt only briefly operating in one direction on Aug. 10 to allow Palestinians to return home.
“Many people came from outside for vacation and they have to get back to their work, but now the border is closed and they cannot go back. There are students who need to get back to their universities. So imagine the problem now that is being caused,” Al-Qarra said.
As the only entry and exit point for most Palestinians in Gaza, approximately 800 people normally cross the Rafah border each day. Egyptian authorities announced that the border would be opened for another three days starting Aug. 14, and that visa holders, students, medical patients, and others with humanitarian concerns would be allowed to cross.
The Egyptian authorities opened the border in one direction for three days, from Aug. 10-13, and in both directions on Aug. 14.
Over 4,000 Palestinians were able to cross from Egypt back into Gaza, and almost 800 others — visa holders, students, medical patients, and others with humanitarian concerns — were able to leave Gaza.
Hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Gaza were also closed as a means, according to the Egyptian authorities, to prevent anyone involved in the Sinai attack from sneaking in and out of the Strip.
But for Palestinians in Gaza, closing the tunnels — which act as the primary lifeline to the besieged territory and provide residents with necessary goods and services — proved just how reliant they are on this unstable system.
Egypt also said that the decision to close hundreds of smuggling tunnels into Gaza is meant to prevent anyone involved in the attack from sneaking in and out of the Strip.
But Palestinians in Gaza are concerned that closing the tunnels — which act as the primary lifeline to the besieged territory and provide residents with necessary goods and services — will soon re-ignite food shortages and the fuel crisis that has plagued their daily lives over the last year.
“There is no serious shortage of food items to date, but it could happen within the next week because 70 percent of the total needs are dependent on the smuggling procedure,” said Khalil Shaheen, director of the Economic and Social department at the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) in Gaza.
“This illegal procedure, the tunnels, was an urgent solution for an exceptional situation. But nowadays, we have become dependent on the tunnels, mainly on imports, and that has reflected in a negative way on the Gazan economy. We are dependent on the tunnels with a very bad quality of goods and with high prices, as well,” Shaheen told IPS.
The Gaza Strip has been under stringent Israeli-imposed restrictions since 2007, shortly after Hamas, an Islamic movement considered by the United States, Israel, and the European Union to be a terrorist organization, was elected.
Internal Israeli documents released that same year revealed that Israel uses mathematical formulas to determine the amount of goods and services allowed to enter Gaza, from canned tuna, rice, and beans to gas, wood, and other construction materials.
Israel justifies the strict restrictions as necessary in its fight against Hamas; in 2007, Dov Weisglass, adviser to then Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert reportedly said, “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not make them die of hunger.”
The restrictions have caused a severe energy crisis in Gaza in recent months, with power cuts lasting up to 12 hours a day due to a shortage of fuel. In June, Qatar began shipping fuel to Gaza — 30 million liters of Qatari fuel was expected over a three-month period — through Egypt and Israel to ease the situation.
As a result, in early August, the Gaza power plant operated all four of its turbines for the first time since 2006. On Aug. 8, however, after the Sinai attack, the plant was forced to shut down one turbine, which once again led to electricity cuts. After the Sinai attack, however, the plant was forced to shut down two turbines, which caused electricity cuts lasting up to 16 hours per day.
The plant requires 3.5 million liters of fuel each week to operate at full capacity.
Shaheen said that while the smuggling tunnels into Gaza help provide for the needs of the local population, the international community must intervene in order to lift the Israeli siege and wean Gazans off their reliance on the unstable tunnel system.
“We are asking the international community to convince the Israeli occupation authorities to lift the siege and the illegal closure. That’s part of the legal obligations of the occupying power: to offer all the basic needs for the civilians that are under occupation. Israel must allow more supplies, mainly for construction materials, and basic needs like medical supplies, vaccinations, and food items.”
(Inter Press Service)