Under-siege Gazans have relied on secret tunnels for survival, now even that lifeline is drying up

In the past, smuggling goods through the tunnels was the most lucrative business in Gaza. (Reuters)
Updated 09 March 2018
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Under-siege Gazans have relied on secret tunnels for survival, now even that lifeline is drying up

GAZA CITY: Haitham has spent the past eight years smuggling Marlboro cigarettes from Egypt into Gaza through the elaborate network of underground tunnels that helped keep the Palestinian economy afloat in the face of Israel’s crushing blockade.
When business was at its peak, he employed 25 staff and rarely had time to rest. Now, with his tunnel shut down and the siege tightening its grip, he spends most of his days trying to think of another source of work.
“We collected thousands of dollars in a short period of time,” he told Arab News. “In the past, smuggling goods through the tunnels was the most lucrative business.”
Tales of woe such as Haitham’s can be heard across Gaza, the impoverished coastal strip in which almost 2 million people are crammed into 141 square miles of shanty towns, refugee camps and scrubland. Cut off politically, economically and culturally from their fellow Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, people here say life is harder than it has been for generations. The situation has been deteriorating for more than a decade, and has its roots in both regional and internal politics.
After Hamas won Palestinian legislative elections by a landslide in 2006, the US, EU, Russia and UN all responded with alarm. Under international pressure, the other main Palestinian party, Fatah, refused to join the Islamist movement in a coalition.
Tensions simmered between the two factions, eventually boiling over into a bloody power struggle for control of Gaza in June 2007. After several days of violent clashes in which both sides carried out public executions of rival fighters, Hamas took control of the strip.
Israel responded with an air, sea and land blockade, but smugglers such as Haitham continued to ply their trade through the underground tunnels. Since Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in Egypt in 2013, however, even that economic lifeline has been shut down as Cairo tries to keep Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood apart.
Unemployment levels now hover at around 40 percent and in the past year alone 42,500 Gazans were arrested by Hamas police for unpaid debts. Hundreds of thousands of people rely on food aid, while fuel shortages have left many hospitals unable to power the generators they use for electricity. The UN has warned that Gaza faces “full collapse,” and even the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, has warned that Gaza’s infrastructure is on the verge of total breakdown.
Khalil Abu Rajab, 70, has spent most of his life working in the clothing trade, a job he inherited from his father. Unable to make ends meet, he is now thinking of closing his business. Sitting on a wooden chair outside his shop as he waved to passers-by, he told Arab News the economic situation was worse than it had ever been.
“I have lived through various periods, from the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip to the period of Palestinian Authority control and the Hamas takeover, but I have not seen a period like this in which I cannot meet my financial obligations,” he said.
At the Al-Shati refugee camp, west of Gaza city, about 80,000 people endure cramped, squalid conditions, with limited access to fresh drinking water and sewage spilling into the streets.
Siham Kahlout lives there with her seven children in a small three-bedroom house. Until 2001 she worked in Israel, but now she relies on aid from the UN and spends most of her time sitting idle outside her home. “We live every day without knowing what will happen tomorrow,” she said.


Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

On his first official visit to Israel and Palestine, Prince William is unlikely to talk about politics. Getty Images
Updated 23 June 2018
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Prince William on first official royal visit to Occupied Territories and Israel

  • The second-in-line to the British throne is due to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
  • There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade

LONDON: Prince William will embark on the first official visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories by a member of the British royal family on Sunday.

But even with more than 120 Palestinians killed in protests in Gaza during recent weeks and controversy still surrounding the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, the second-in-line to the throne is not expected to talk politics.
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), told Arab News that the four-day tour is likely to focus on making trade deals in preparation for Britain’s departure from the EU next year, rather than on addressing the moribund Middle East peace process.
“There is a pretty naked desire to build relationships and Israel is a warm target for an increase in trade,” he said.
The visit risks “normalizing” the abusive regime under which Palestinians live, he added.
“Of course Prince William has to go to both the Israeli and Palestinian sectors or there would have been outrage. But there is a risk of his visit making it appear more acceptable and normal to carry out abuses of international law like the blockade of Gaza,” Doyle said.
William begins his Middle Eastern tour on Sunday in Jordan, a long-time ally of Britain. On Tuesday he will move on to Jerusalem, where he will visit Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Holocaust victims, meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and later attend a football event with a mixed Arab and Jewish team.
On Wednesday he will meet young activists, both Arab and Jewish, who are involved in education and social programs, and also cross into the Occupied Palestinian Territories to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah before attending an event focusing on Palestinian refugees.
He is due to deliver a speech at a reception hosted by the American consul in Jerusalem. However, protocol prevents him from making any remarks that might be deemed partisan. Doyle told Arab News this was a pity in view of how William’s mother, the late Princess Diana, championed justice for the oppressed.
“It is a pity that someone of his status, who clearly cares about his mother’s legacy, cannot give voice to real major concerns about the treatment of the Palestinians and the human rights abuses that are daily issues for them under Israeli control but which will be airbrushed out,” he said.
“Yes, he will see co-operative programs and Arabs and Jews playing football together, but the reality is that the Palestinian footballers can only travel to matches with Israeli permission.”
William was a surprise choice for the visit. Many expected the task to fall to his father, Prince Charles, who has more experience of countries which are politically extremely sensitive. But it is thought he was chosen because his youth chimes better with young Israelis working in hi-tech fields who he is scheduled to meet. Among Palestinians, his presence will barely register, said Doyle.
“I hope the language can be found for him to say something to his Israeli hosts, that his visit will be more than window-dressing, but the reality is it’s very unlikely. So the visit won’t register as important with Palestinians. They don’t want to be part of some tourist show or box-ticking exercise,” he said.