In light of the Egyptian security forces’ demolition of hundreds of smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula, the Hamas movement — which rules over the besieged territory — announced that it is decommissioning its “Tunnels Authority” on Wednesday.
The spokesperson of Gaza’s Interior Ministry, Iyad al-Bazm, issued a press release saying, “The ‘Tunnels Authority’ no longer exists after Egypt’s closure of all the tunnels.”
The Tunnels Authority was formally established by the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza as a bureau affiliated to its Ministry of Interior. Its task was to supervise and regulate these tunnels, while taxing the goods, merchandise and transfers flowing through them.
The blockaded Palestinian territory has had several hundred of its tunnels to Sinai demolished over the last few months, while its six official border crossings with Egypt and Israel often remain closed for several days each week.
Gazans typically have to wait for days before receiving clearance and being allowed entry into Egypt through the Rafah border crossing. Students, medical patients and pilgrims are often given priority over the rest of the Gazan population.
Egyptian border officials in late 2013 claimed that 1,055 smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Sinai were destroyed since January 2011. More recent figures suggest that a total of around 1,200 tunnels have been demolished.
A host of different figures have been provided regarding the number of extant tunnels and the number of those demolished.
These tunnels, which had served as a lifeline, smuggling everything from weapons and people to cement and petroleum products, appear to have been wiped out, and with them the now-defunct Tunnels Authority.
Since Israeli settlements and armed forces were pulled out of this tiny coastal enclave in 2005, Gaza has been subjected to heightened Egyptian-Israeli blockades, especially since the Hamas takeover of power in 2007.
With technical assistance from the United States and France, Egyptian authorities began the construction of an underground steel barrier along Gaza’s southern border in December 2009, with the aim of blocking-off smuggling tunnels. However, this barrier was breached many times, while other tunnel operators dug deeper to get beneath the barrier.
The regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi both cracked down on the smuggling tunnels. However, the harshest crackdown has come under the interim rule of Adly Mansour and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The crackdown against the tunnels intensified significantly as Egypt’s military-supported interim government moved against the Hamas movement, which is a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Following the military’s ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, Egypt’s interim government classified the Brotherhood a terrorist organization on December 25. Shortly after, the Egyptian State also outlawed Hamas. On March 4 the judiciary issued a ruling banning all of Hamas' work and activities in Egypt.
With the alleged aim of keeping weapons from going in or coming out of the Gaza Strip, Egyptian Armed Forces appear to have succeeded in demolishing these tunnels by blowing them up or filling them with sewage and wastewater.
On March 18, Hamas issued a statement claiming that Egypt’s heightened siege on Gaza represents a “crime against humanity” and an act of collective punishment targeting the territory’s 1.8 million residents.