Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Egypt dynamites, fills with water, sewage and poison gas Palestinian smuggling tunnels, destroying or damaging some of them

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (NYT) — On a humid night in Rafah recently, six Palestinian smugglers sat around a backyard table, ticking off the damage that Egypt has done to their tunnels over the past two years.

It dropped dynamite and floated poison gas into them. It filled them with sewage.

Last year, it took the extraordinary step of razing more than 3,000 homes on its side of the border to create a buffer zone that would seal off access to the tunnels, creating a humanitarian catastrophe in the process.

Now, the smugglers fear that Egypt has settled on a strategy that could spell doom for their trade: flooding the tunnels so they collapse. Within the past month, Egypt has flooded part of the nine-mile border area twice, causing two tunnels to cave in completely and damaging another 10 or so.
Abu Khalil, 34, said he was working on repairs to his 2,000-foot tunnel when he heard the water rushing in.

“We saw the water,” he said. “We could have been washed away.”

He returned with 15 workers and a pump. For two days, they pumped water out of the tunnel, trying to keep the walls from collapsing. Abu Khalil said that once all the water was pumped out he would shore up the walls with pieces of wood.

“God willing, we’ll take control,” he said.

If the recent episodes of flooding were a trial run, as many Palestinians here suspect, a more sustained flooding would be a disaster, because Gaza officials could not pump the water out fast enough into the sea.

“All this area will be destroyed,” said Wael Abu Omar, a Gaza Interior Ministry official, gesturing at the pools of muddy water drying in the sun.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest measures to destroy the tunnels.

If flooding recurs, it may have other consequences: harming nearby agricultural lands and exacerbating the salinity of Gaza’s badly damaged aquifer. It has already terrified residents near the border, who fear their homes will buckle.

“They say the water is coming from Egypt,” Mansoura Abu Shaer, 73, said in the doorway of her small house. She and her 74-year-old husband had been forced to leave two other homes because of Israeli shelling. This time, she feared Egypt would prompt their displacement.