On Sunday, the Israeli military revealed that it had discovered a tunnel under the Gaza-Israel border, built by radical militant Palestinian organization Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007.
“The tunnel is extremely advanced and well prepared,” Brig. Gen. Mickey Edelstein, commander of Gaza Strip division, told reporters. “Massive amount of concrete and cement have been used to build this tunnel.”
Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk implicitly acknowledged responsibility for the tunnel. “The tunnel which was revealed was extremely costly in terms of money, effort and blood,” he said. “All of this is meaningless when it comes to freeing our heroic prisoners.” In June 2006, Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was smuggled into Gaza through a similar tunnel after being seized in a Hamas-led raid. Shalit was released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.
Echoing a number of other right-wing sources, former Bush administration Middle East hand Elliott Abrams wrote that the tunnel was built with cement that Israel was forced to provide under international pressure in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American were killed by Israeli commandos while trying to break the blockade of Gaza by sea.
“Israel stopped the ship, but the incident did Hamas some good,” wrote Abrams, “the violence and the publicity increased pressure on Israel to loosen the terms of the blockade”:
And so the cement flowed; Israel lifted its ban. But now it turns out that what was being constructed by Hamas in Gaza was not an economy, not houses or public buildings, but tunnels whose purpose was to permit terrorist attacks into Israel. Most recently, Israel discovered a great project: a tunnel 60 feet deep and 1.5 miles long. Construction appears to have been started two years ago—after cement began to flow into Gaza.
Abrams then went on to blame all of those who criticized Israel’s blockade — including Pope Benedict, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, former President Jimmy Carter, the Middle East Quartet, and “virtually every EU government” — for forcing Israel to provide this cement.
The problem with this is that it’s just not true. Israel did loosen the blockade slightly in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, but mainly reduced restrictions on food items while maintaining heavy restrictions on building materials. While cement may have been “flowing” into Gaza, it wasn’t flowing from Israel, but through the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.
“From 2007 to 2010, Israel allowed small quantities of cement to enter for international organizations only,” said Sari Bashi, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO that monitors Gaza. In 2010, Israel “increased the amount of cement it permitted for international organizations only, which are required to undergo a nine-month approval process, including very onerous bureaucratic requirements purportedly designed to prevent diversion of the materials. It is unlikely that materials purchased by the United Nations –- very carefully monitored by Israel –- made it out of UN hands.”
In September, Israel began allowing small quantities of cement to enter for the private sector. “But,” Bashi notes, “according to the Israeli army, that was after the tunnel had already been completed.” On the other hand, cement flowed freely from Egypt via the smuggling tunnels. “More than 5,000 truckloads of construction materials per month entered via the tunnels in the first half of 2013, for example,” Bashi said “So the cement for the tunnel likely came from Egypt.”
In a 2012 piece written after visiting Gaza and talking with smugglers and frustrated entrepreneurs trying to make a (legal) living, I noted that the closure policy supported by Israel, Egypt and the U.S. had produced the opposite of its intended goal, enabling Hamas to sustain itself by skimming taxes off the tunnel trade, while blaming Israel for its own failure to govern.
Since the Egyptian coup that removed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Mohammed Morsi in July, Hamas has seen a dramatic reversal of fortune. The new Egyptian military government has significantly stepped up efforts against the tunnels. Gaza’s deputy economic minister said recently that tunnel activity had been reduced by 80-90 percent since the military takeover in Egypt. Gaza’s government and its people remain under serious pressure, but if the past seven years of blockade haven’t dislodged Hamas from control of Gaza, it’s unclear why anyone would expect a different result now. While Israel clearly has legitimate security concerns with regard to Hamas-controlled Gaza, it’s important to recognize that the closure policy has failed to achieve its goal, and at great cost to Gaza’s civilians, rather than simply casting blame upon people who point this out.