As Egypt blocks access, Gazans turn to Israel for outlet

Sharp increase in traffic of people and goods between Gaza and Israel with Egypt clamping down more tightly on the Hamas-controlled Strip

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Illustrative. Smoke rises after an explosion at a smuggling tunnel dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border on the southern Gaza Strip on August 31, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Illustrative. Smoke rises after an explosion at a smuggling tunnel dug beneath the Gaza-Egypt border on the southern Gaza Strip on August 31, 2013 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel is increasingly replacing Egypt as a source of commodities to the Gaza Strip and as an outlet for its civilian traffic, following an intensification of Egypt’s crackdown on smuggling tunnels along its border with the Gaza Strip, new data indicates.

The number of citizens exiting Gaza for Egypt through the Rafah border crossing dropped by 69 percent in July as compared to the previous six months, the Israeli organization Gisha, which deals with Palestinian freedom of movement, revealed on Sunday. The number of entries into Gaza from Egypt has also dropped by 51 percent.

In parallel, the number of Gaza residents entering Israel in July through the Erez border crossing increased by an average of 29%; with the sharpest increase (62%) comprising civilians traveling on business and for family unification, and others seeking medical treatment or commerce.

The study was done over a period that saw Egypt increasingly shutter the Strip, closing off and limiting use of the legal border crossing at Rafah while taking action to quash smuggling tunnels used to ferry weapons, people and goods.

The Egyptian crackdown on Gaza’s smuggling tunnels intensified sharply following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi, an ally of the Hamas regime in Gaza, on July 3. According to some estimates, up to 90 percent of Gaza’s once-thriving smuggling industry has been destroyed by the Egyptian army, and the Rafah border crossing has remained shut 29 percent of the time.

In its report, Gisha also revealed a sharp increase in the import of fuel and cooking gas to Gaza  through the Kerem Shalom crossing with Israel.

As the import of gasoline through the tunnels decreased in July by 46 percent, the import of cooking gas by 68 percent, and the import of basic food products by 46 percent; the total quantity of equivalent goods imported from Israel through Kerem Shalom increased in July by 38 percent.

The entry of gasoline from Israel into the Gaza Strip grew nearly five-fold in July as compared to June, and cooking gas import rose 41 percent following the extension of the operating hours at Kerem Shalom crossing, Gisha reported.

Israel eased its restrictions on imports to the Gaza Strip in June 2010, but continues to prohibit the import of commodities which can be used for the production of weapons as well as for construction, namely cement and steel.

But Gisha director Sari Bashi said that Israel’s more lenient policy is still far from satisfying the humanitarian needs of the Gaza Strip.

“The Israeli response is far from adequate,” Bashi told The Times of Israel. “Israel was cognizant of the Egyptian crackdown when formulating its policy, but it will need to find more robust solutions like opening border crossings it had permanently closed or significantly expanding the capacity of Kerem Shalom.”

Bashi added that while Israel has allowed in an additional 1,200 Palestinians in July as compared to previous months, 14,000 Palestinians remain stranded in Gaza as a result of the near-complete closure of Rafah crossing with Egypt. The Palestinians who are allowed to enter Israel, she noted, are mostly residents of the West Bank and international aid workers.

“Israel’s control creates responsibility,” Bashi concluded, adding that the Palestinian Authority as well as her organization have asked the Israeli Defense Ministry to increase the number of entry permits for Gaza residents, but have so far received no answer.

A spokesperson from the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which oversees traffic in and out of Gaza, said there were no changes in Gaza policy.

On Sunday, Egypt bulldozed 13 homes on its side of the border near Rafah in possible preparation for the creation of a buffer zone with the Gaza Strip. Egyptian security officials told the Associated Press that they envision a building-free zone 500 meters (1,640 feet) wide and 10 kilometers (six miles) long, stretching from the Rafah border crossing to the Mediterranean sea.

Hundreds of residents of Egyptian Rafah gathered on Monday to protest the military operation and the eviction from their homes, Palestinian news agency Safa reported. The Egyptian army fired warning shots to disperse the crowd.

Hamas, for its part, threatened an escalation of violence in Egyptian Rafah in response to the military operation. Hamas daily Al-Resalah reported that members of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades were placed on high alert to thwart a possible “Egyptian-Israeli attack.”

On Monday, Hamas’s Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades announced the death of its fighter Muhammad Mansour in the collapse of a tunnel. The Islamic group did not specify the exact circumstances of Mansour’s death, saying only that he died while carrying out the duty of jihad.

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