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Bedouin tribes and an open Gaza hold key to Sinai peace

This posting has 5 items:

1) BBC:  Egypt tribes back offensive against militants in Sinai
2) The Economist:  Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation
3) The Daily Beast:  In Israel, Fear of a Jihadi Menace Along the Sinai and Syrian Borders
4) +972: Lethal Sinai attack is connected to the Gaza blockade
5) Ynet: Israeli sources say that Gaza terrorists use Sinai to test rocket range and accuracy

Maps from BBC

Egypt tribes back offensive against militants in Sinai
By BBC news
August 10, 2012

Bedouin tribal leaders in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula have agreed to help restore security in the lawless border area with the Gaza Strip and Israel.

In talks with Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal al-Din, they also backed plans to destroy smuggling tunnels into Gaza.

The move comes as Egyptian troops mass in the area in an operation to contain Islamist militants who have built up a presence there.

The militants are suspected of killing 16 Egyptian border guards on Sunday.

Egypt has deployed extra troops, tanks and other armoured vehicles.

It also closed the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip following the killings. The border – the only way in or out of the enclave without passing through Israel – was reopened on Friday, but only for Palestinians wishing to return to Gaza.

Also on Friday, military sources said six suspected militants had been arrested in the Sinai region. It was not immediately clear whether they were linked to the border attack.

Egypt’s state-run Nile TV put the number arrested at nine.

Border control
Mr Gamal al-Din met the tribal leaders late on Thursday night at al-Arish, about 50km (30 miles) west of the Gaza border, to ask for their support.

He later told reporters: “With the help of the people [of Sinai], the mission will succeed.”

Sheikh Atef Zayed, a member of al-Rishad tribe, said all present had pledged to support the military’s operation. “Egypt’s security is a part of Sinai’s security,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

Another tribal leader, Eid Abu Marzuka, said the tribes had also reached a consensus that the tunnels should be destroyed.

There are believed to be hundreds of smuggling tunnels in Sinai

“Let Hamas be upset, we don’t care,” he said, of the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Mr Marzuka said Egypt’s contact with Palestinians in Gaza should be through the Rafah crossing.

“We are against smuggling, and against the siege,” he added, referring to Israel’s blockade of the enclave.

There are hundreds of illegal tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border – they are used to get goods past the blockade but also to smuggle in weapons and people.

The militants who launched Sunday’s attacks are believed to have used the tunnels as an escape route.

Egypt’s Mena news agency reports that the army has already begun sealing them off.

The latest violence in the Sinai region began on Sunday, when militants carried out the deadliest and most brazen attack against Egyptian troops in the Sinai region for decades, killing 16 border guards.

There were further attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish on Wednesday, which left a number of people wounded.

Egypt launched its military offensive hours later, carrying out missile strikes from helicopters.

According to military officials, 20 people were killed in the village of Touma, while the Sheikh Zuwaid area to the west was also hit.

The BBC’s Yolande Knell, in al-Arish, said further armoured personnel carriers could be seen overnight on Thursday, heading eastwards towards the border region.

Egypt’s military presence in Sinai is limited and requires Israeli approval under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty which returned Sinai to Egyptian control.

Analysts say that the security situation in the area has deteriorated following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, and that Islamist extremists appear to have gained a foothold.

Egypt, Israel and Sinai: The need for triangular co-operation

A jihadist attack on Egyptian and Israeli forces requires urgent co-operation between the two countries—and with the Islamists of Hamas in Gaza

By The Economist
August 11, 2012

THERE was no shortage of warning. In the 18 months since Egypt’s revolution, Bedouin chiefs in the Sinai peninsula have voiced mounting concern about the growing boldness of armed jihadist groups in their midst. In June a bunch of them based in Gaza launched an attack via Sinai that left one Israeli dead. In July jihadists released a video and leaflets promising to turn Sinai into an Islamic emirate and demanding that Egyptian government forces should impose sharia law or quit. On August 2nd Israel’s government called on its own citizens to stay away from Sinai’s beach resorts, citing intelligence warnings of a heightened risk. Three days later the Israelis fired a rocket, killing a Palestinian motorcyclist in Gaza, who, they said, was a jihadist. Retaliation beckoned.

Yet a few hours later, just before sunset, Egyptian soldiers manning a desert checkpoint near the three-way junction of Egypt’s border with Israel and the Gaza Strip took no precautions before sitting down to break their Ramadan fast. Some still had food in their mouths when their bodies were recovered. The masked men who pulled up in several cars showed no mercy, blasting the checkpoint with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic gunfire. They left 16 Egyptian servicemen dead.

Some of the attackers, wearing suicide-belts, then hijacked two armoured personnel carriers and sped towards the Israeli border. One vehicle, laden with explosives, failed to break through the barriers and caught fire. The other penetrated more than a mile into Israeli territory before being hit by a rocket fired from an Israeli helicopter. The Israelis were evidently readier than their Egyptian counterparts.

As Egyptian forces reinforced the northern part of Sinai, the risk of a full-scale local revolt grew. Eye-witnesses in el-Arish, North Sinai’s biggest town, reported half a dozen attacks by jihadists at midnight on August 7th, with the airport and the road to Rafah, on the border with Gaza, coming under fire. Egyptian forces chased the attackers to el-Touma, home of the Qurn, a clan with links to extreme Islamists. Amid a partial news blackout in Egypt, initial reports claimed that ground troops, backed by helicopter gunships, had killed at least a score of the jihadists, though locals were sceptical of the claim. A fierce counter-insurgency campaign is now expected.

In Egypt blame was soon angrily flung around. Supporters of the “deep state” that still dominates the security establishment were quick to castigate Egypt’s newly installed, Islamist-tinted civilian government. President Muhammad Morsi, they said, had foolishly relaxed controls on Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, cosying up to his fellow Islamists in the Palestinian Hamas movement that runs the enclave. They blamed Mr Morsi for letting dangerous foreign elements infiltrate both Sinai and Gaza. Egypt’s new prime minister, Hisham Kandil, was jeered and pelted with shoes at a state funeral for the 16 servicemen. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which both Mr Morsi and Hamas spring, suggested that Israel’s intelligence service had somehow staged the attack.

Others pointed fingers at Egypt’s military rulers. On August 8th, perhaps deliberately exploiting the army’s discomfiture, Mr Morsi threw down a gauntlet to the generals by sacking a string of senior officers, including the head of intelligence and the military governor of northern Sinai. This may help Mr Morsi regain some of his prestige, which has plummeted since he became president.

In the decades since Egypt recovered Sinai from Israel, following the peace accords of 1979, a succession of generals appointed as governors has failed to tackle the desert region’s malaise. A vicious security clampdown in 2004 following terrorist attacks on tourist resorts in southern Sinai, along with immigration by Egyptians from the Nile Valley, alienated Sinai’s already disgruntled Bedouin.

After Hamas took over the running of Gaza in 2007, prompting Israel—unchallenged by Egypt’s government—to besiege it, the Palestinians began digging hundreds of tunnels under the border with Egypt. This fostered a bonanza of smuggling that profited Bedouin tribes, corrupt Egyptian officials and the Islamists of Hamas. Arms smuggling in particular surged last year, as rebels in Libya grabbed huge stocks of weapons accumulated during the paranoid reign of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Complaints from Israel and its Western allies over Sinai’s increasing lawlessness have often been met with protests that the 1979 peace treaty restricted Egypt’s army to a token, lightly armed presence. (An American-led multinational monitoring force in Sinai is often attacked.) Last year Israel agreed to let Egypt deploy an additional 1,500 men and to fly helicopters near a border strip. But only now, in the wake of the attack, is Egypt taking serious measures to seal the smuggling tunnels and hunt down the jihadists in the region’s barren hills.

The Hamas conundrum
Alarmingly for Palestinians in Gaza, who have hoped for warmer ties with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era, Egypt has again closed its official border crossing, the territory’s only reliable outlet to the world. Fearful of an anti-Palestinian backlash, Hamas expressed fulsome condolences for Egypt’s fallen soldiers. Hamas has struggled to suppress jihadist extremism in Gaza while at the same time exalting the right of its own people to fight Israel.

Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, led prayers in the road outside Gaza City’s Egyptian consulate, with half his cabinet and hundreds of others prostrating themselves in unison. He is said to have discussed the situation for two hours with Egypt’s (later sacked) intelligence chief, Murad Mowafi, and promised to improve co-operation. An Egyptian newspaper said Hamas had provided the tip-off enabling an Egyptian helicopter to fire on jihadists on August 7th near the border town of Sheikh Zwayed, where masked men in Afghan dress were directing traffic.

For years Hamas has suppressed jihadists groups in Gaza, especially those espousing puritanical Salafist ideals that hark back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Hamas sought to prevent them from attacking hairdressers, internet cafés, Christians and other supposedly decadent influences. But it has been less eager to curb their missile attacks on Israel or to stop them infiltrating Egypt.

More recently, however, Hamas has closed the tunnel complex to slow infiltration and gun-running. If Hamas really wants to please the Egyptian government, it would arrest the 200-odd jihadists still at large in Gaza. Hisham Saidini, a jihadist preacher whom Hamas had freed soon after Ramadan started last month, defended the killing of Egypt’s soldiers on the grounds that they were protecting Jews.

Israel, too, will have to let both Egypt’s security forces and those of Hamas in Gaza control their borders more effectively. Israel may have to allow Hamas to operate in a buffer zone along Gaza’s eastern border. Egypt’s air attack on the jihadists on August 8th was the first time that air power had been deployed in anger by Egypt in Sinai since the war with Israel in 1973, and was co-ordinated with Israel in advance. The Israelis say they have had several discreet high-level talks with the Egyptians since Mr Morsi was sworn in a month ago.

The three governments also need to agree on new economic arrangements. For the past five years, the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza that fostered smuggling through the tunnels has hugely benefited people in Sinai who are beyond the law—of any country. Opening the borders to legal traffic and trade should lessen the power of jihadists and smugglers in Sinai and Gaza, and thus strengthen the arm of the governments in Cairo and Jerusalem.

Mr Morsi seems well aware of the dilemma. Egypt’s main military academy and senior civil posts have been opened up to the Bedouin, and plans are afoot to improve the peninsula’s several hundred villages, many of which have no piped water. He had already made a point, early in his presidency, of visiting Sinai. He has also hosted Hamas leaders. Before the Sinai attack, he received Mr Haniyeh and discussed definitively lifting Gaza’s siege.

Israel may also have to consider co-operating with Hamas, its avowed enemy. After the attack on August 5th, Israel’s leaders were careful to blame global jihadists rather than Gazans or Hamas. Although Egypt has yet fully to open the crossing at Rafah, Israel has already reopened its one nearby at Kerem Shalom, for trade if not yet for people. With the influence of Islamists in Syria likely to grow in the event of Bashar Assad’s fall, Israel may have to decide whether to accommodate itself to the likes of Hamas lest a still fiercer version of Islamism comes to the fore.

In Israel, Fear of a Jihadi Menace Along the Sinai and Syrian Borders

By Dan Ephron, Daily Beast
August 9, 2012

Increasing violence in Egypt’s Sinai is heightening Israeli concerns that jihadis linked to the terrorist group might be gaining power just across the border.

A surge of violence in Egypt’s Sinai desert this week is heightening Israeli concerns about what officials and analysts describe as the growing presence of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadis along the Jewish state’s borders.

Egypt used warplanes in Sinai for the first time in decades to strike at the militants this week, after Islamists killed 16 Egyptian security men Sunday, stole a truck full of explosives and an armored vehicle and headed for Israel to try and perpetrate more violence.

The truck exploded harmlessly at the border while an Israeli fighter plane bombed the other vehicle, preventing what could have been a devastating terrorist attack.

But the incident underscored the ways in which rising lawlessness not just in Sinai but also in Syria—another of Israel’s neighbor’s—could embroil Israel in new and menacing security problems, even as its conflict with the Palestinians remains largely dormant.

“I think we’re finally starting to wake up and understand that the instability, in Syria even more than in Egypt, is allowing jihadi groups to come in,” said David Bukay, a professor of Middle East studies at Israel’s Haifa University. “People have to understand that the alternative to Bashar al-Assad (the Syrian president) is Al-Qaeda,” he said.

In Syria, the violence has yet to extend to the Golan Heights, the mountainous border region that Israel has occupied since capturing it from Syria in 1967. But the combination of a weakening central authority and the potential for chemical weapons to fall into the hands of jihadi groups has prompted grim assessments.

Bukay is one of the more strident voices in the Israeli discourse on evolving security threats. He says the United States erred in helping Libyan rebels oust Muammar Gaddafi and should now be backing Assad rather than supporting the uprising underway Syria. In the case of Libya, he said, the government that replaced Gaddafi is helping arm Islamic insurgents across the region.

Most Israeli government and military officials reject the idea that Assad should be propped up. They say his departure would deal a major blow to Iran, which has close ties with the Assad regime. And they point to his crackdown on the popular rebellion, with more 15,000 civilians killed across Syria, as evidence of his brutality.

But they do share Bukay’s assessment on the growing presence of jihadis in both Syria and Egypt.

In a closed-door briefing last month, the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Major-General Aviv Kochavi told Israeli lawmakers: “The Golan area is liable to become an arena of operations against Israel in much the same way the Sinai is today, and that’s a result of the increasing entrenchment of global jihad in Syria.”

In Egypt, the situation is complicated by the election earlier this summer of an Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
Morsi pledged after the border incident earlier this week to wipe out the groups in Sinai responsible for the violence. He ordered airstrikes yesterday after a second clash between militants and Egyptian security men—the first involvement of the Egyptian air force in Sinai in decades.

But Israelis say Morsi’s reluctance to engage in the kind of close security cooperation with Israel that existed during the long reign of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, has hampered efforts to stem the violence.

“Egypt doesn’t have effective control over the areas and the Islamic fundamentalist tribes are actually controlling the area, challenging the regime and doing whatever they want in Sinai,” said Dan Harel, a retired Israeli general who commanded Israel’s southern region, including the border area with Egypt, from 2003 to 2006.

He said Israel had conveyed intelligence information to Egypt ahead of border attack but that the other side failed to act on it.

Not much is known about the jihadis operating in Sinai and neither side could say precisely which group carried out the attack. Israel says the Sinai extremists have ties to militants in the Gaza Strip, though it’s not clear what evidence Israelis have to support it.

Israel and Egypt have been at peace since their landmark accord in 1979. The agreement lays out restrictions on the number of troops Egypt can deploy in Sinai, which Israel returned to Egypt as part of the peace.

Morsi said during his campaign that he would honor the agreement but might seek changes in order to allow Egypt to deploy more troops in Sinai.

But Israel says it already consented to a large deployment that the Egyptians never made.

Dan Ephron has been Newsweek’s Jerusalem bureau chief since January 2010. Previously, he served as a national-security correspondent and deputy bureau chief for the magazine in Washington. His stories have also appeared in The Boston Globe, The New Republic, and Esquire.

Lethal Sinai attack is connected to the Gaza blockade

By Roi Maor, +972
August 6. 2012

The lethal attack on an Egyptian military outpost, in an attempted incursion into Israel, is another reminder of the terrorist infrastructure in the Sinai Peninsula. This infrastructure was built in part on the basis of the Gaza-Egypt-Israel smuggling industry, which is fueled by the massive restrictions on movement and trade imposed on the Strip by Israel and Egypt.

On Sunday evening, terrorists attacked an Egyptian military outpost in the Sinai Peninsula, near the Rafah and Kerem Shalom border crossings, connecting Egypt with the Gaza Strip and Israel respectively. Fifteen Egyptian soldiers were killed in the attack, in which assailants seized two armored vehicles and attempted to infiltrate Israel. One of the vehicles was destroyed by a detonation of the explosives loaded on board; and the other was destroyed by the Israel Air Force, preventing the planned incursion. The attack was probably carried out by a global Jihad group, and was denounced both by the Egyptian government and by Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

This attack is yet another reminder of the dangerous situation which has evolved in the Sinai Peninsula. Conquered by Israel in the 1956 and 1967 wars, and returned both times (in 1957 and following the Camp David peace accord with Egypt in 1979). The peninsula is a desert, three times larger than all of Israel, inhabited by about half a million people, many of them the traditionally pastoral Bedouin. In recent times, it has turned into a popular tourist destination, including for some Israelis.

However, over the last decade, it has also increasingly become a hotbed of terrorist activity. This development has to do with the area’s basic features (poor, largely empty, hard to navigate, international tourists as lucrative targets). But the ongoing crisis in the Gaza Strip is likely to have been a major trigger for the last decade’s deterioration.

The Strip, which borders Sinai, is much smaller, more isolated, and holds less sentimental attachment for Jewish Israelis than the West Bank. As a result, it has always been at the forefront of Israeli efforts to “separate” themselves from the Palestinians. Gaza was one of the first places where Palestinian population centers were evacuated by the IDF under the Oslo Accords, in 1994. It was fenced by Israel long before the West Bank wall, and the final permanent Israeli land presence in the Strip ended when its settlements were evacuated from Gaza under the 2005 disengagement plan. This led to a further tightening of the closure on Gaza – the massive restrictions imposed by Israel on land, air and sea movement of people and goods to and from the strip. The situation worsened further in 2007, when Hamas took over the strip, and the Egyptian government joined the blockade, largely shutting down the Egypt-Gaza border (the 2009 Israel-Gaza War certainly did not help, although the blockade was slightly loosened following the Gaza flotilla and the political upheaval in Egypt).

The distress created by these restrictions has led to the rise of an immense smuggling industry, mainly with the Sinai Peninsula, heavily reliant on its Bedouin population (and some of their fellows in the Israeli Negev, which border both Egypt and Gaza). This industry specializes in moving goods through tunnels and gaps in the fence, not just between Gaza and Egypt, but in the entire Gaza-Egypt-Israel border triangle. Although this mainly involves civilian goods, plenty of weapons flow through this trade, which has also been boosted by drug and human trafficking (of migrants and refugees) along the Israel-Egypt border.

Sinai, increasingly flooded by criminal activity and weapons, combined with the basic features mentioned above, has become a magnet for terrorist organizations, both Palestinian and those affiliated with global jihad. Major attacks on the peninsula occurred in 2004 (37 killed), 2005 (88 killed) and 2006 (23 killed) and another one was foiled by Egyptian security in 2009: all mainly targeting tourists, many of them Israeli. Last year, seven Israelis were killed in the southern city of Eilat, in a cross-border attack emanating from Sinai. In the last two years, there have also been a string of 15 attacks on the pipeline carrying natural gas from Egypt to Israel.

Israeli is attempting to build yet another fence, this time along the Israeli-Egyptian border (joining those in the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon; and soon to be joined by an Israel-Jordan fence). But as previous experience – and the pipeline itself – indicate, it is impossible for Israel to solve problems with other people in the region by sealing itself off from them. This latest attack is also another reminder of the dangerous regional spillover effects from policies on the Palestinian issue in general, and Gaza in particular.

Sinai vacuum a boon to Gaza rocket men

Israeli sources say that Gaza terrorists use Sinai to test rocket range and accuracy
By Reuters/Ynet
August 11, 2012

Israeli sources say there is evidence Egypt’s north Sinai region is becoming not only a rallying point for jihadist gunmen but a firing range for Gaza’s indefatigable rocket builders, seeking ever greater range and accuracy for mainly homemade weapons.

It was soon after the 2011 revolt in Egypt toppled President Hosni Mubarak that Israeli rocket radars began to spot unusual launches from the Palestinian territory, which Israel keeps under a land, sea and air cordon.

Normally they streaked towards Israeli border towns, or north towards coastal cities. But now some were aimed at the empty desert wastes of Sinai.

The purpose seemed clear: to test rockets made or smuggled in by Palestinian groups who do not have space for a practice range.

“They have a Bedouin collaborator in Sinai who finds the crater and marks it by GPS,” an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity, describing a low-tech but effective method of tracking test-firings from Gaza.

A sheik from a Sinai village around 60 km (40 miles) from Gaza described how in June he heard several explosions and went to investigate. He found a spent rocket. It had gouged a basketball-size hole in the ground.

“The remaining parts did not include any writings that could tell where the rocket came from,” he said.

Gaza’s Hamas government and its smaller Islamist factions deny conducting any military operations in Sinai.

But security officials from Egypt, which is now hunting armed Islamists in Sinai in its biggest military operation there in 40 years, privately admit it has become a playground of bandits, smugglers and terrorists exploiting the free-for-all.

The Israelis who spoke about the rocket tests did so before an Aug. 5 attack on a Sinai border police post shocked Cairo, raising the stakes overnight in what Israel said it hoped would be “a wake-up call”.

Gunmen killed 16 Egyptian border guards. Seven terrorists were then killed by IDF forces after they stormed the border in a stolen armored car, some wearing explosive belts.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Hamas said it was arresting radical Salafi Islamists, one of several groups who try to fire rockets into Israel in defiance of de facto Palestinian truces.

Israeli officials will not comment on the record about the Gaza rocket tests, perhaps unwilling to pile another public headache onto Egypt’s new, Islamist-rooted government.

When rudimentary rockets emerged in Gaza a decade ago, they were test-fired into the Mediterranean. Splash-downs were calibrated using binoculars and spotters in fishing boats. Since those days, Gaza rocketeers have at times test-launched into Israel’s southern Negev desert.

Thanks to advances in Gaza’s underground munitions industry and smuggling of military grade rockets from Sinai, ranges have increased and crews need observable impact sites during tests.

Tzvika Foghel, an Israeli brigadier-general in the reserves often garrisoned in the south, recalled occasions when rockets were fired from the far western corner of Gaza at open areas of Israel, a diagonal span of more than 40 km (25 miles).

“They could easily see where the rockets were landing by putting someone in an elevated position in Beit Hanoun,” Foghel said, referring to a Gaza town on the Israeli border.

Palestinian sources say rocketeers would monitor Israeli media and police channels after a launch and use the web-based mapping program Google Earth to assess range and accuracy.
Tall-tale debris
Israel’s Gaza blockade includes advanced radars to detect and track rocket launches in real-time. The radars feed Iron Dome, an interceptor system that only shoots downs rockets threatening populated areas.

Rockets headed into the open Negev, deliberately or by mistake, are watched with interest by Israeli intelligence.

“There are those who see these practice launches as an opportunity to study what the enemy is planning and preparing for us,” said a serving Israeli military officer.

So when Palestinians fire a rocket in practice, the Israelis can study its trajectory and debris. But in Sinai the debris is beyond their reach.

Rockets and mortars have killed 21 people in Israel’s south over the past decade. When fired in salvoes, life is suspended for around one million Israelis who live within range, running for shelter to await the blast and the all-clear.

In the southern town of Sderot, a frequent target, the crisis center has a room full of twisted, rusting rocket casings that trace the steady development of this Palestinian arsenal.

According to an Israeli defense official, the Gaza arsenal currently amounts to 10,000 rockets, the more powerful of which reach 70 km (44 miles), enough to hit Tel Aviv.

It is closely watched, and in the fog of war testing can prove just as dangerous for Palestinian militants as war itself.

Life-and-death adventure?
In late October, an overflying Israeli surveillance drone recorded several Palestinians painstakingly off-loading a long, heavy tube-like object from a van and then standing it on what looked like a launch-pad in the southern Gaza town of Rafah. The ensuing air strike on the site killed a senior member of the Palestinian faction Islamic Jihad and four of his comrades.

It may have been the group’s bad luck that their appearance coincided with a flare-up of violence that included a rocket being fired deep enough into Israel to set off sirens on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, more than 50 km (32 miles) from Gaza.

“In retrospect, we got information indicating that it was meant to be another test-launch,” the Israeli military officer said of the men killed in Rafah.

A rocketeer from one Palestinian faction in the enclave told Reuters such risks are part of the long conflict with Israel that requires either fighting or preparing to fight.

“Every outing with rockets is a life-and-death adventure. It is one we love,” he said. “If we live we will be back to fire more, and if we die we go to heaven as martyrs.”

Egypt killings crush Gazan hopes of new horizons

Reuters/The National
August 9, 2012

GAZA—-Stranded at home and abroad, short of fuel and worried about going hungry, this is not what Gazans expected when Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June.

Egypt closed their only passenger crossing into the Gaza Strip and has moved to seal myriad smuggling tunnels connecting the two territories after unidentified militants killed 16 Egyptian policemen in neighbouring Sinai on Sunday.

Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas have ruled out suggestions in the Egyptian media that Palestinian gunmen took part in the Sinai massacre, and have criticised Cairo for imposing “collective punishment” on the impoverished coastal enclave.

But with Egypt showing no sign of relenting, thousands of ordinary Palestinians have found themselves stranded during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, while traders warn of shortages if the tunnels stay stoppered.

“We had high hopes of being able to travel more freely and we actually noticed an improvement in treatment when we crossed into Egypt,” said Tareq Al Husary, 32, a painter from Gaza who is on a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia with his sick mother. “Now we are marooned out of Gaza,” he said, speaking by telephone.

Home to 1.7 million, Gaza has been under tight embargo since Hamas took control in 2007. Hamas is deeply hostile to Israel, and former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak helped impose the embargo to peg back the Islamist allies of his domestic foes.

Since Mubarak’s downfall last year, Egypt eased restrictions on the passage of travellers through the Rafah crossing – the only window on the world for the vast majority of Gazans, with Israel refusing exit visas for all but exceptional cases.

The abrupt closure of Rafah, which normally sees some 800 people a day leave for Egypt and beyond, left many visiting Palestinians fearful for their overseas jobs, while others worried their visas might expire before they could be used.

“I still hope to be able to make it back to Dubai before August 15th to catch my job,” said Heyam Al Kurdi, who teaches in Dubai and came to Gaza for the wedding of her daughter.

The shutdown at Rafah has so far prevented 3,000 Gazans from heading to Saudi Arabia for “Umrah”, the minor pilgrimage believed to bring greater merit if carried out during Ramadan. That has left them and their travel agents facing losses of some US$4 million (Dh14.6m) for prepaid accommodation, transport and visa fees.

“The closure of the crossing is a disaster for tourism companies,” said Eid Hnaif, who works for a Gazan travel firm.

Anxious to show how seriously it took the Sinai killings, Hamas leaders ordered the closure of the smuggling tunnels on Sunday to prevent any of those involved from sneaking into Gaza.

Egypt has long turned a blind eye to the illicit, underground trade, so news on Tuesday that it had deployed heavy machinery to destroy the tunnels, which bring in everything from food to fuel and building materials, caused deep concern.

Palestinians said so far, the shafts to just a few “secondary” tunnels had been put out of action. However, Abu Awni, a tunnel owner, said Egyptian officials were also trying to find out what went through the main tunnels and had deployed four or five soldiers to various entrance points.

Although Israel has relaxed its trade embargo, introduced to prevent arms or weapons-making equipment to militants, many Gazans prefer to buy cheaper goods smuggled from Egypt.

“Eighty per cent of food materials in the markets of Gaza come from Egypt. What comes from Israel is not enough at all,” said Abu Awni, whose 40 employees were idling at home.

Long lines built at petrol stations across Gaza on Monday as news broke that the tunnels were blocked. Two days later some pumps had already run dry, even though Palestinians said at least two fuel pipes to Egypt were still functioning.

But Mr Abu Awni predicted that the Egyptians would not be able to close the tunnels, believed to number some 1,000, for long.

“Unless they create other crossings for trade, we will open five tunnels for each tunnel they close. They cannot just leave our people to starve,” he said.

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