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In the boom times over the past few years, sections of Gaza’s southern borderline resembled a busy shipping terminal, with trucks hauling loads of smuggled cargo from the vast network of underground tunnels from Egypt.

Last week, due to the ongoing Egyptian military operation that has shuttered the vast majority of the tunnels, the illegal entry point was lifeless. Tunnel workers in shorts slept on mattresses. Even the Hamas government office in charge of taxing the tunnels was closed. Across the border, Egyptian military vehicles came and went. Yellow bulldozers filled in tunnel entrances. 

“On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side,” says Mohammed Omer, a Palestinian journalist, describing the scene in Palestinian Rafah. “There is quite tight control. The Egyptian military are controlling across the borderline, which means they [the smugglers] cannot really operate, even if they can operate freely from the Gaza side,” he says.

On the Palestinian side, they’re just watching the destruction on the Egyptian side

By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s current operation has paralyzed the vast majority of the tunnel system. Of an estimated 300 tunnels operating before June 2013, approximately 10 were operating on September 21, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs. The quantity of goods moving through the tunnels is 15 percent of what it was in June.

In Arish, reporter Ashraf Sweilam, citing security officials, says that more than 400 tunnel entrance shafts (as distinct from the main trunks of the tunnel system, which are deeper underground) had been closed.

The Armed Forces’ operation has raised the specter of a total shutdown of the tunnels, a prospect that could have grave consequences on both sides of the border. The offensive comes in the context of an upsurge in armed attacks on military and security installations in Sinai following the military’s removal of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi in July. On August 19, unknown gunmen killed 24 Central Security conscripts near Rafah. Last week, eight security personnel and one civilian were reportedly injured in a roadside bombing. Egypt has repeatedly blamed Hamas for the infiltration of militants across the border who Egypt’s military says are behind the attacks in Sinai. The tunnels, Egypt contends, have been the main means of movement for these militants.

“The army ended the tunnels. There are no tunnels,” says Samir Faris, the general director of education in Egyptian Rafah, who lives 100 meters from the Gaza border.

“The Egyptians are serious,” says Amir Rotem, the spokesperson for Gisha, an Israeli organization advocating greater freedom of movement for Palestinians. “What the end result will be is anyone’s guess. Tunnels at this moment are vital to many aspects of a sustainable society in Gaza, and a complete shutdown, if at all possible, cannot be over dramatized.”

In early September the military leaked plans to establish a 500-meter wide buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, extending 10 kilometers from the Rafah border crossing to the Mediterranean. The operation has so far destroyed at least 13 houses on the Egyptian side of the border. Armed Forces spokesperson Mohamed Ahmed Ali reiterated the military’s intention to impose a buffer zone at a press conference on September 15.

But shutting the tunnels down permanently would push Gaza deeper into crisis and curtail economic options for the beleaguered residents of north Sinai.

The tunnels became the Gaza Strip’s economic lifeline after Israel’s imposition of a near-total border closure in 2007. Applied in response to Hamas’ takeover of the territory, the 2007 blockade on Gaza was the culmination of years of curbs on freedom of movement, which began with the imposition of closure during the 1991 Gulf crisis. In the early 2000s, Israeli forces bombed Gaza’s seaport and airport. By 2009, Gaza’s once considerable industries had been replaced by a shadow economy based on the tunnel trade.

Throughout Gaza, where more than 80 percent of the population relies on international aid to survive, residents are now compelled to buy more expensive fuel imported from Israel. Now a liter costs 7.1 shekels (LE13.7), while a liter tunnel-transported fuel would have cost 3.2 shekels (LE6.20). The fuel crunch has led to an uptick in power cuts, now up to 12 hours a day, the UN reports. The price of cement has more than doubled. Israeli authorities have apparently compensated for a small fraction of the shortfall in some goods, for example allowing cement and iron bars into Gaza for the first time since 2007. 10,000 people are on a waiting list to leave through the Rafah border crossing.

On the Egyptian side, people of north Sinai, largely excluded from Egypt’s army and security forces and sidelined from the formal economy in tourism, oil, and other industries, bought into a localized tunnel boom. They ran transported anything into Gaza, from fuel cars to fish. The tunnel-based economy flourished after the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, when Sinai residents expelled police from much of the territory.

But the tunnels are not new. Nor is the notion of a buffer zone that would shut down the tunnels. Smugglers began using tunnels under the border after Israel occupied Gaza in 1967, transporting drugs and certain goods made scarce under Israeli military rule. The city of Rafah, which straddles the border, was only formally divided between Israel and Egypt under the Camp David peace accords.

The idea of a buffer zone first took physical form more than ten years ago. After the launch of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, the tunnels beneath Rafah were reportedly used to smuggle weapons used by armed groups in Gaza. Between 2000 and 2004, the Israeli military destroyed approximately 1,600 Palestinian homes along the border in an effort to find and destroy tunnels. Successive Israeli operations cut a corridor 300 meters wide through the urban area of Rafah.

In recent years, the Israeli air force has launched periodic strikes on the tunnel area, and the Egyptian state has sporadically bulldozed, flooded and blown up tunnels from the Egyptian side. Smugglers died, but the tunnel economy as a whole flourished, becoming part of the economic infrastructure. Hamas embraced the tunnels as a crucial source of revenue (as much as $20 million a month, according to some accounts), a windfall that bolstered the Gaza-based wing of the movement over its exiled leadership.

Even more ambitious schemes to shut down the tunnels also failed. In 2009, when Egypt began building an underground iron wall to cut through the tunnels, smugglers again circumvented them. When I last visited the tunnel area, in late 2010, one tunnel worker told me it took his crew about 20 minutes to bore through the barrier.

Darryl Li, an anthropologist and attorney at Columbia University and one of the authors of a 2004 Human Rights Watch, Razing Rafah, about Israeli home demolitions along the border, is skeptical of the notion that the tunnels could be shut down for good.

“Certain kinds of security solutions and buffer zones get floated, in a way of being tough or cracking down, but the reality on the ground tends to be a little more complicated and usually more incremental,” he says. “The tunnels serve a purpose. It’s not really in anyone’s interest to get rid of them completely.”

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