Egypt Floods Gaza Tunnels

12:00 Oct 7 2015 Rafa,Gaza

Egypt Floods Gaza Tunnels Egypt Floods Gaza Tunnels
A Palestinian man in a flooded tunnel that was used to smuggle goods between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Credit: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

Mansoura Abu Shaer, 73, and her husband, Juma Abu Shaer, at their home in Rafah, Gaza Strip, near the border with Egypt. She fears that the flooding of nearby tunnels will prompt their displacement. Credit: Wissam Nassar for The New York Times

by Diaa Hadid and Wissam Nassar for the New York Times

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — On a humid night in Rafah recently, six Palestinian smugglers sat around a backyard table, ticking off the damage that Egypt has done to their tunnels over the past two years.

It dropped dynamite and floated poison gas into them. It filled them with sewage.

Last year, it took the extraordinary step of razing more than 3,000 homes on its side of the border to create a buffer zone that would seal off access to the tunnels, creating a humanitarian catastrophe in the process.

Now, the smugglers fear that Egypt has settled on a strategy that could spell doom for their trade: flooding the tunnels so they collapse. Within the past month, Egypt has flooded part of the nine-mile border area twice, causing two tunnels to cave in completely and damaging another 10 or so.

Only about 20 of 250 tunnels are still operating — the worst situation smugglers can remember. They find themselves waiting nervously for the flooding to begin again.

“This is the end for us,” said Abu Jazar, a 42-year-old smuggler, who, like others interviewed for this article, declined to give his full name out of fear that the Egyptian authorities might identify him. “If they were bombing us, we could fix it.”

Israel and Egypt imposed restrictions on Gaza after Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. But Egypt’s crackdown intensified after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became defense minister under President Mohamed Morsi in 2012.

That year, gunmen killed 15 soldiers at an Egyptian Army checkpoint in the northern Sinai Peninsula, which abuts Gaza. At the time, it was the deadliest assault against Egyptian soldiers in recent memory.

After Mr. Sisi became president, he saw the tunnels not only as a boon for Hamas — which he despised as an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood — but also as a direct threat to Egypt’s security, asserting that arms and militants were flowing through them.

“From the beginning with Sisi, it was 50 percent hard,” Abu Jazar lamented. “Now it is 90 percent hard. It will be 100 percent hard when they turn on the pumps.”

The tunnels once played a central role in the economy of this coastal enclave of 1.1 million. Many of the goods that got into Gaza — livestock, cars, appliances, building materials — came through them.

Since the crackdown began, thousands of Palestinians have been thrown out of work, contributing to soaring poverty in the territory. Already long power cuts have gotten worse, as tunnels supplying one million liters (about 260,000 gallons) of diesel each day have been shut down. Thousands of tons of merchandise no longer get in.

Mr. Sisi has put even more pressure on Gaza through prolonged closings of the Rafah border crossing. The 20 tunnels that remain in operation are able to move only small items like cellphones and cigarettes.

During the summer, the Egyptians dug a trench on the Sinai side of the border and then laid pipes parallel to the dusty buffer-zone road, known as the Philadelphia route. Water from the nearby sea was pumped in, creating an overnight canal, said Abu Ibrahim, a Palestinian border guard. The water channel flooded two tunnels, causing them to collapse, smugglers said.

In early October, it happened again, this time flooding 10 tunnels.

Abu Khalil, 34, said he was working on repairs to his 2,000-foot tunnel when he heard the water rushing in.

“We saw the water,” he said. “We could have been washed away.”

He returned with 15 workers and a pump. For two days, they pumped water out of the tunnel, trying to keep the walls from collapsing. Abu Khalil said that once all the water was pumped out he would shore up the walls with pieces of wood.

“God willing, we’ll take control,” he said.

If the recent episodes of flooding were a trial run, as many Palestinians here suspect, a more sustained flooding would be a disaster, because Gaza officials could not pump the water out fast enough into the sea.

“All this area will be destroyed,” said Wael Abu Omar, a Gaza Interior Ministry official, gesturing at the pools of muddy water drying in the sun.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest measures to destroy the tunnels.

If flooding recurs, it may have other consequences: harming nearby agricultural lands and exacerbating the salinity of Gaza’s badly damaged aquifer. It has already terrified residents near the border, who fear their homes will buckle.

“They say the water is coming from Egypt,” Mansoura Abu Shaer, 73, said in the doorway of her small house. She and her 74-year-old husband had been forced to leave two other homes because of Israeli shelling. This time, she feared Egypt would prompt their displacement.

Ms. Abu Shaer said she and her husband now sat outside at night, waiting for a flood “to see if we should run away.”

Of the 20 tunnels still operating, about six were being lengthened to reach built-up areas again. One tunnel, smugglers said, was now two miles long.

Some of the men were trying to reinforce and waterproof their passageways with cement and steel bars, hoping they would be saved from collapse if more flooding occurred.

Two tunnel owners, they said, were now digging deeper into the ground, hoping to go down 160 feet, gambling that water pumped in by Egypt would not reach that far.

“Two people are trying, but they have a lot of money,” said Abu Rabah, 44, a former tunnel owner. “They are kings, first-class tunnel owners.”

Abu Ramzy, 33, who still had working tunnels, said they were waiting to see if that strategy had any impact.

“We are watching and waiting,” he said. “None of the tunnel guys are sleeping. All of us are thinking of what our next plan is going to be.”

Abu Rabah, whose tunnel had been idle for months, considered his options: “Maybe we will go above the fence. Or maybe go by the sea. Or maybe we need planes.”

To that Abu Jazar responded, “Or maybe we should just give up and go fishing.”

Majd Al Waheidi contributed reporting from Rafah, and Kareem Fahim from Cairo.
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