Egypt unrest squeezes Gaza, prompting shortages


GAZA CITY — The unrest in Egypt has sparked a severe shortage in goods and fuel in the already isolated Gaza Strip, which relies on smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border for the majority of its imports.

Ahead of the mass protests across Egypt Sunday, Egypt’s military reportedly moved to shut down the tunnels, fearing Gaza-based militants would exploit any potential chaos to stage attacks on Egyptian security forces. Egyptians, panicked that the demonstrations would cause a sudden collapse of the state, stocked up on provisions and on fuel, causing long lines at gas stations across the country.

Now that Egypt’s military issued Monday a 48-hour ultimatum for President Mohamed Morsi and other political forces to resolve the current political crisis, which saw millions take to the streets in protest Sunday, Gazans are even more worried that their economic situation will worsen.

Egyptian news agencies, quoting eyewitnesses, reported that more army troops arrived on Egypt’s side of the border Sunday, the day millions of people took to the streets to protest Morsi on the anniversary of his inauguration.

Adel, a smuggler on the Gaza side, says the Egyptian army has blocked all roads leading to the tunnel area — and Hamas government officials in Gaza say only a few tunnels are partially operating.

“There is a crisis,” said Subhi Radwan, the mayor of Rafah on Gaza’s border with Egypt. “And we have no other alternative to get basic needs.”

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Gaza has long been dependent on Egypt for its commercial life, even as Israel partially lifted its own years-long blockade on the territory in 2010.

While Egypt hosts no formal commercial crossing with Gaza, Egyptian goods are cheaper and, unlike Israeli goods, are not subject to tight restrictions. Some estimates from local think tanks say Gaza gets more than 70 percent of its goods from the tunnels — and the rest from Israel.

Until now.

The news that Egypt’s military was intensifying its operation to shut down the tunnels — and of a severe fuel shortage in Cairo — sent Gazans to the gas stations to refill their tanks and to the stores to stock up on supplies, exacerbating the crisis. 

The shortage has even crippled the black market for fuel, because almost no gas or diesel is entering the territory, officials say.

Gaza imports fuel from Israel, but with 80 percent of the population of 1.7 million still reliant on aid, residents prefer the cheaper Egyptian version.

Gaza’s gas station syndicate, which had decreased its reliance on Israeli fuel in the past, has now asked Israel to provide more fuel to head off the crisis, according to the Hamas government’s petroleum directorate head, Abdul Nasser Muahnna.

Abu Jalal, a taxi driver in Gaza City and father of eight, spends hours waiting in line to fill up his tank.

“The gas stations are dry. Getting a few liters of diesel is more difficult than getting a job these days,” he said, smiling as he lit a cigarette.

Right now, the price of what is left of the diesel on the black market has jumped from $12 to $26 per gallon.

"I cannot afford buying Israeli fuel because it is very expensive," Abu Jalal said. "I would need $100 to refill my tank."

The cost of construction materials, too, is on the rise. In addition to shortages due to a clampdown on the tunnel trade, businessmen here say Egyptian exporters are bumping prices because of the heightened risk that comes from moving goods to Gaza — by as much as 50 percent.

Mohammed Muhaissen, a teacher, stopped building his new house after the price of cement rose from less than 350 shekels ($96) a few weeks ago to 800 shekels ($220) today.

The Egyptian army first began destroying the hundreds of smuggling tunnels, some of which have operated for decades, following a militant attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in August.

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Some Egyptians blamed Palestinian militants, while others claimed the attackers were a mix of Egyptian and Palestinian fighters. The tunnels have also served as pipelines for weapons to fighters in the Gaza Strip, which is administered by the militant Hamas movement.

Still Gazans are worried that further unrest in Egypt, including a military coup, will leave them without a lifeline. Some here had hoped that Morsi, an Islamist, would be more sympathetic to the plight of those living in the Hamas-run territory.

"I have bought everything I need, but the prices are high so I could not buy large quantities," said Aisha Ibrahim, a housewife in Gaza City. Ibrahim is worried she will not be able to afford food to feed her family during Ramadan, the Islamic month of feasts and fasting that starts in mid-July.

"What I have is enough for a week,” she said. “But I don't know what to do when the food I bought is over."

Radwan, Rafah’s mayor, says he understands Egyptians need security, adding that Hamas had boosted its own forces at the border Sunday. 

Instead, he said, Egypt should allow the formal passenger crossing at Rafah to be used for commercial goods.

Hamas has also proposed the construction of a free-trade zone between Gaza and Egypt, but so far Egypt has refused.

In the meantime, Adel has laid off 10 of his 15 workers due to the slowdown.