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Rachel Corrie’s humanity lives on in Gaza’s Ark

* Article by Michael Coleman, aka one half of the kayaktivists, edited by Greta Berlin and James Godfrey and first published on Green Left Weekly on Thursday, August 30, 2012http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/52095

Rachel Corrie, 2002

Rachel Corrie was born on 10 April 1979, and raised in Olympia, Washington, USA. She was the youngest of Craig and Cindy Corrie’s three children. Cindy describes their family as “average Americans, politically liberal, economically conservative, middle class”. However, even as a young girl, Rachel’s commitment to human rights was clear, when in grade five she stood in front of an auditorium full of adults and talked passionately about her dreams for the future, giving her now famous “I’m here because I care” speech.

After graduating from college at 23, Rachel’s commitment to human rights took her to the Palestinian enclave called Gaza, to a small city called Rafah  – about as far from Olympia as humanly possible. In Palestine, Rachel volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), bearing witness to Israel’s daily violations of international law against the 1.4 million people who lived there.

Rachel’s main purpose in Rafah was to try and prevent the Israeli Occupation Force [IOF], from demolishing Palestinian houses along the border with Egypt to create a “security” zone. At the time, the Israeli military had demolished 1,700 homes in Rafah, an action human rights groups claimed was collective punishment. On 16 March 2003, Rachel Corrie died trying to protect a Palestinian home from demolition, when she was crushed by an IOF bulldozer.

Rachel Corrie faces down a bulldozer in Gaza

Shortly before her death, Rachel said that “I feel like I’m witnessing the systematic destruction of a people’s ability to survive”. Unfortunately since 2003 the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip has only deteriorated, and the collective punishment now targets the entire population of the Strip. All of Gaza’s now 1.6 million residents, the majority of whom are children, have been under an Israeli blockade since 2007 ‘officially‘. However the restrictions on the movement of the population of Gaza began as far back as 1991 – when Gaza was first cut off from Israel and the West Bank. The blockade is clearly an act of collective punishment, something the International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out, stating that “the whole of Gaza’s civilian population is being punished for acts for which they bear no responsibility.”

The effects of the blockade are well documented. During the past five years when the blockade has been in full effect, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation have reported that the Israeli Military has killed or injured over 10,000 Palestinians residents. 70% of the population is now reliant on aid organisations for their basic human needs such as food, shelter or medical care. 90% of Gaza’s water is now undrinkable; due to a sanitation system that was rendered inoperable by the IOF during Operation Cast Lead. Gaza’s hospitals have faced constant chronic shortages of drugs and equipment for years, while fuel shortages cause power cuts of up to 18 hours a day.

Last Tuesday, the Corrie family’s decade long struggle for justice for Rachel was dealt a blow when the Haifa District Court ruled that her death was an accident, for which she was responsible. Despite the judge’s decision perpetuating the myth that her death was a tragic accident, the case shed light on Israel’s breaches of human rights and the impunity enjoyed by its military.

However people of conscience around the world have not been deterred by Israel’s murder of Rachel Corrie or the many murders that preceded and followed it. In fact as it has becomes blatantly clear that the only route to a free Palestine is through civil society initiatives like the ISM, the Free Gaza movement, the flotillas, flytillas and other global civilian projects, the numbers of people around the world standing in solidarity with the Palestinians, both in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, has only increased.

The latest creative strategy for challenging Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza is Gaza’s Ark. Gaza’s Ark will not only challenge the blockade physically – it will also build hope on the ground in Gaza by providing investment, training and employment. Gaza’s Ark will also promote Palestinian trade with the outside world through the only port on the Mediterranean that is closed to shipping. Indeed, as James Godfrey of Free Gaza Australia stated: “Gaza’s Ark affirms our belief that the Palestinians of Gaza can rebuild their economy through outbound trade that threatens no-one’s security.”

The legacy and spirit of Rachel’s humanity lives on in projects like Gaza’s Ark and always remember as Cindy Corrie stated following the verdict: “I don’t think that Rachel should have moved. I think we should all have been standing there with her”. The Corrie’s are a truly inspirational family who have both my condolences and gratitude.

Corrie Family awaiting the verdict
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Occupation News

Gaza: The End of Tunnelnomics

Is Hamas’s lucrative underground trade about to come to a screeching halt? May 4, 2011

RAFAH, Egypt — “I recently lost one of my tunnels,” Abu Jawad told me nonchalantly. “An Israeli drone flew by, identifying its coordinates, and within minutes an IDF jet had dropped a precision-guided missile, destroying its exit.”

To Abu Jawad, a Palestinian tunnel entrepreneur and owner/operator of several tunnels, this was another workplace hazard. He cut an imposing figure at over 6 feet tall, with a glaring black moustache and a high-tech hunting vest worn over his traditional galabiyya, with several walk-talkies, pulley grips, and other bits of equipment stuffed in it. “I would fix it for about $10,000, but it’s not worth the re-investment as the Israelis already have its coordinates,” he concluded with a shrug. “I might just have to build another.”

My friend and I had set off from Cairo to the Egyptian-Israeli border hoping to cross into Gaza to report on the state of the border after the Egyptian revolution in January, and to show our solidarity with the Palestinian people. We were now receiving a crash course in Tunnelnomics — the unique capitalist math behind the smuggling tunnels connecting Egypt with Gaza.

Since Israel’s 2008 assault on Gaza, which it termed Operation Cast Lead, there has been a virtual blockade on the territory. Israel and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime allowed only minimal humanitarian supplies into Gaza, and prohibited all other shipments. Israel controls the airspace, sea passageways, and all the land crossings into Gaza — except for the one at Rafah, which straddles the border.

Since the Egyptian revolution, tunnel owners have indicated that it is still “business as usual” along the border. However, there are indications that Egypt’s current rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), are loosening the blockade on Gaza. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil El Araby said in late April that the Rafah crossing would soon be open on a permanent basis, describing Egypt’s previous policy on Gaza as “shameful.”

But while Egypt sorts out its post-revolutionary politics, Gaza continues to suffer. A report by the World Food Program and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that, since the 2008 offensive, more than 61 percent of Gazans now suffer from food insecurity and rely on humanitarian aid agencies to feed their families. “Restrictions imposed on the civilian population by the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip amount to collective punishment, a violation of international humanitarian law,” the report argued.

Tunnels, or “lines” as they are known locally, are a profitable business in an otherwise economically impoverished area, both on the Egyptian and the Palestinian side of the border. In Gaza, the tunnels are the lifeline of both Hamas and the approximately 1.5 million people living there. They are used to smuggling supplies, cars, weapons, fuel — even livestock.

But the tunnels at Rafah are an equally precious asset for the impoverished residents on the Egyptian side of the border. The Bedouins who inhabit the Sinai Peninsula were furious that Mubarak, after reassuming control from Israel in 1982, continued to neglect the economic development of the region. Instead, the former president directed billions of dollars of investment toward seaside resorts such as Sharm El Sheikh, where he kept a chic modern seaside residence, while completely neglecting the less glamorous parts of Sinai. The Bedouins, therefore, see the tunnels as a golden opportunity to improve their livelihood in an otherwise economically stagnant area.

“What other opportunities do I have here?” asked Abu Mukhtar, an Egyptian tunnel part-owner. “Open a grocery? Work in a hotel in Sharm El Sheikh? Neither option will make much money. I can partner in a tunnel and make a decent living for myself and my family.”

Like any industry, there are start-ups and well-established businesses. According to Abdel Jawad, the cost of a tunnel can start at $15,000 for a four foot-high by three foot-wide tunnel used to smuggle cartons of cement (resembling more of a hole than a tunnel), and can reach up to $150,000 for a state-of-the art, 10 by 6-foot tunnel used to smuggle cars.

As Rafah is effectively one city divided between two sides, Palestinians and Egyptians enter into partnerships to build and operate the tunnels. Tunnels usually start under a house in Egypt, and end up in a house in Gaza. Each side is manned by an “operations manager” who is in close contact via cell phones and walkie-talkies with his counterpart on the other side. When a delivery comes through, it is either carried or pulled through tunnels with a pulley system. Some tunnels use ropes to lift the cargo up on the Palestinian side, while others even make use of electric elevators.

An entrepreneurial Egyptian or Palestinian can pocket a tidy profit from a tunnel.

A ton of cement can cost between $200 and $300. Cars assembled locally in Egypt, such as the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruise, can cost around $2,000. More luxurious sedans like the Honda Accord — several of which we observed cruising around Rafah with no license plates, presumably destined for the tunnel trade — could cost more than $3,000.

The operation is a closely regulated industry, with Hamas appointing a “head of Tunnels Authority” to oversee the operation, maintain quality standards, levy taxes, and impose fines for “illegal” transport of goods and people, meaning transfers unauthorized by Hamas. According to Yezid Sayigh of King’s College London, Hamas earned an estimated $200 million from tunnel taxes in 2009.

The dangers are as great as the potential rewards. Smugglers risk tunnel collapses, Israeli strikes, as well Hamas’s wrath should they attempt to smuggle unauthorized and unregistered cargo. Nonetheless, considering the economic situation on both sides of the border, it is a risk many are willing to take. Material passes through during the night and day; I have witnessed trucks laden with construction materials, such as cement and iron bars, cross Egyptian Rafah’s central plaza only to appear later, empty, having discharged their cargo.

Non-Palestinians trying to get into Palestinian Rafah are vetted by Hamas, which charges a $100 fee to cross. To have our visit approved, we had to submit an email application to our contact in Gaza, who then presented it to the Tunnel Authority. It explained who we are, what we do, and why we were attempting to enter the strip. Our contact returned with a negative response: The authority refused our application out of fear of jeopardizing Hamas’s relations with Egypt’s new government.

Hamas is hoping that its improving ties with the new military government in Cairo will finally bring an end to the blockade on Gaza. High-ranking Hamas officials have been shuttling in for meetings with Egyptian authorities since the revolution, signifying an end to Mubarak’s hostility toward the group. These talks recently culminated signing of a reconciliation accord between Hamas and Fatah, the dominant party in the West Bank.

The shifting political terrain in Egypt may indeed convince the government to reopen the Rafah crossing. Egypt’s newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood is set to make major gains in upcoming future elections. The Brotherhood, which enjoys close historical ties to Hamas, has long championed the Palestinian cause and supports a full reopening of the border.

One potential motive for opening the border, then, may be to take away one of the Brotherhood’s campaign issues and gain popular support by reversing Mubarak’s detested policy on Gaza. El Araby’s announcements have been hailed in the media and have so far resonated very well with the Egyptian people. The prime minister, Essam Sharaf, also visited Sinai at the end of April to apologize publicly for years of neglect toward the region.

The moment may be approaching when Egypt opens the Rafah border unconditionally to cargo and people, thus bringing an end to the tunnel industry. The Bedouin, however, have been promised many things, only to see the government fail to deliver. “We have heard a lot of talk of this before. I will believe it when I see it,” Abu Mukhtar said. “If it happens, I will have to find another job.”

Until that day, tunnelnomics continues to rule in Rafah.

This article was written by Adel Abdel Ghafar, and first published on Foreign Policy on May 4, 2011.

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