It is well known that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is no friend of the Palestinians, but if blowing up Gaza’s lifeline (the tunnels) wasn’t enough, he is now taking even further measures to ensure the people of Gaza have no access to the outside world. Immediately after taking power in the July 2013 coup d’état, the Egyptian President ordered the military to destroy the majority of underground tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula. Seeing as the Gaza Strip is under a strict illegal siege by Israel, these tunnels literally acted as a lifeline for the Palestinian people trapped in the dense strip. As of July 2014, over 1,639 tunnels have been destroyed, limiting the already limited necessary supplies and materials entering Gaza.
Reports confirmed this week that al-Sisi will be stepping up measures to intensify the blockade of Gaza. Egypt plans to create a buffer zone along the border, demolishing homes to make room for water-filled trenches to deter the construction of new tunnels. There will also be an advancement of Egypt’s navy to patrol the coastal waters near Gaza. Egyptian and Israeli ships will be patrolling the shores side by side.
This means that the already limited supplies coming from Egypt to keep Gaza afloat will be virtually cut off. The closure of the Rafah crossing, the buffer zone, moat, and destruction of the remaining tunnels and any structures near the border will make even smuggling dates a difficult task. Israel has destroyed tunnels in the past, only to see them rebuilt. If enacted strictly and effectively, Egypt’s buffer zone will be a permanent threat to Gaza’s tunnel economy.
One can only speculate as to how this will affect not only the economy and survival of the people of Gaza, but also Hamas’ strategy. Under the stress of this crackdown will they dig more tunnels into Israel instead? Will they be emboldened to carry out riskier operations or fire more rockets? Time will tell. But if past events teach us anything, it is that starving the people of Gaza has only served to increase public support for Hamas, who remain in the eyes of the people, the sole force continuing the fight for the liberation of Palestine.
Egypt states security reasons for the new move, citing the danger of weapons smuggling between Egypt and Gaza. The announcement comes after a recent attack in the Sinai Peninsula in which 31 Egyptian soldiers were killed by a group of armed men. Attacks in the Sinai have increased in frequency since al-Sisi came to power, prompting the new leader to believe that Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are behind them.
In al-Sisi’s attempt to marginalize and expel his main domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, he must also take aim at their Palestinian ally Hamas. As al-Sisi continues to consolidate power after the rocky transition over a year ago, we can expect to see more state violence, bloody crackdowns, and human rights violations. To contain these threats, Egypt is also reaching out diplomatically to more regional actors, such as those in Africa and the Gulf, in an attempt to build an anti-Muslim Brotherhood coalition. We have also seen increased Israeli-Egyptian cooperation, for the related purpose of containing Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This was most evident in the recent Israel-Gaza conflict when al-Sisi silently closed the Rafah border-crossing in the midst of Israel’s massacre and offered an insincere ceasefire agreement. After the public release of the details of Egypt’s ceasefire draft, the meek action was recognized for what it was – namely, a thinly veiled surrender of all Palestinian rights, which would return the situation to the status quo. For Gaza, that meant slow starvation and imprisonment. For Israel, it meant that citizens could return to the beach without the fear of hearing warning sirens.
The United Nations estimates that in last summer’s assault on Gaza over 2,205 Palestinian were killed, with almost 70% of them civilians. 500,000 were displaced, 108,000 were left homeless, and 72% of households are food insecure or vulnerable to insecurity. Now, once again, Gaza is in the crosshairs. However, this time it is not Israel’s bombs, but an economic strike from Egypt.