CAIRO: As Gaza remains isolated and economically squeezed, the tunnels used for smuggling on the Egyptian border appear to be a means for providing much-needed basic goods along with the alleged weapons caches.
“We know that there are cigarettes that come in, some medicines that come in. There are various things we know must have come in through the tunnels because they didn’t come in any other way, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) Commisioner-General Karen Koning AbuZayd told Daily News Egypt.
“So many things have been restricted [in Gaza] that are necessary that have not been available and then become available. They are probably coming in through Kerem Shalom and elsewhere. There are things that are getting through that people just need to live. You just can’t live on food and medicine, she added.
The smuggling between the Egypt-Gaza border is a contentious issue, with weapons caches routinely discovered in tunnels dug beneath the border and Israel accusing Egypt of not doing enough to prevent the smuggling.
The border has been shut since last June when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah. Thousands of Palestinians who fled to Egypt during the clashes could not return for months because of the Rafah crossing closure. Until now, it is estimated that there are over a thousand Palestinians still trapped in Egypt unable to return.
Although the plight of the stranded Palestinians falls under the UNHCR’s jurisdiction rather than UNRWA’s, it is still an issue that concerns AbuZayd, who is based in Gaza.
“A lot of our staff gets stuck, along with others, and we certainly have a real problem with the borders being closed. The trouble is that there are four parties involved and each one says we can’t do it without the other three. And each one is then able to blame it on someone else but at some point something has to change.
“As long as the Israelis and the Americans are strongly against it [opening the crossings], then it will be difficult like a lot of the things we are trying to do, AbuZayd added.
Recently, Egypt allowed some 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims returning from Mecca to go back home to Gaza through the Rafah crossing, much to the chagrin of Israel. Egypt cited “humanitarian reasons for opening the crossing.
Head of the UNRWA Cairo Liason Office Rula Khalafawi told Daily News Egypt that “If it [the crossing] was opened for the pilgrims for ‘humanitarian’ reasons then it should be opened every day.
“Many Palestinians come into Egypt for medical reasons; they come for surgery and some are students, some are visiting families, Khalafawi added.
AbuZayd said, “This is what we had this summer, many Palestinians had come [to Egypt] to visit their families and couldn’t get out. Kids couldn’t go back to school, families couldn’t be reunited. There are people from my staff who were sent out for training and they can’t come back in.
The UNRWA chief recounted the tale of one of her staff members who has been stuck in Egypt since June.
“He can’t go back through Israel and we don’t know why, she said. “He is unaffiliated to anyone, probably he has the same name as someone who is wanted or has a cousin who is a militant. He has tried everything, and has stood at the border every time it has been opened.
“His seven-year-old son won’t talk to him on the phone because he hasn’t seen him in seven months and thinks he doesn’t want to come back. That’s the kind of thing we hear every day, she added.
Gaza remains isolated with its now skeletal economy not sustaining its residents, 80 percent of whom rely on humanitarian assistance.
“[The situation] does have a resolution, and we have to try to keep going to get to that point. The situation is always changing, usually for the worse, but it isn’t one of those places where you’re plugging away and nothing changes.
Some of us have to keep up hope, because the Palestinians in Gaza are losing it, said AbuZayd