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Gaza economy grinds to a standstill

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Palestinian Omar Shaban has occasionally bought cigarettes smuggled through the Rafah tunnels, as well as fuel for the generator that keeps his household in the Gaza Strip running when the electricity is cut. The tunnels had become a major source of economic activity and income for smugglers in recent months, as Israel’s 18-month blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip tightened. Whatever the terms of an agreement reached for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel, Shaban , a freelance economist, hoped that there will be a solution, once and for all, to this problem. In fact, he said that he and many other Palestinians there couldn’t wait for the tunnels – and the need for them – to be eradicated completely. “We don’t want tunnels. We don’t want a blockade. We want to trade with Jordan, with Egypt, with everybody,” he told The Jerusalem Post in a telephone interview. “We want our children to grow in a normal situation. We want to live normally like others, we want to be treated normally…But if you put Gaza under sanctions for 18 months, it is not normal. How can you be normal in an abnormal situation?”   During Operation Cast Lead, the IDF has attacked more than 200 of these tunnels, which it says have been used to smuggle in illegal weapons, such as rockets and explosives, into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. “Without the tunnels, Hamas wouldn’t be able to lay a hand on long-range rockets,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. “They are still making the small Kassam rockets in local workshops, which are a nuisance enough, but thanks to the tunnels, they can introduce into Gaza more sophisticated explosives and long-range rockets, such as Grad missiles.” Shaban , however, estimated that the vast majority of the smuggling today was used to transport food, clothes, household appliances and fuel. Smuggling food, he said, had long become more profitable than smuggling weapons. Today, during Israel’s 17-day war with Hamas, both legal and illegal economic activity had come largely to a standstill in the Gaza Strip, he said. “Not only are the tunnels not working, but the banks are not working. People are not going out. Nobody can move in the street,” he said. “We are at war…There is not a single economic activity going on.” As a result, Palestinians in the already impoverished Strip are becoming even more dependent on foreign aid organizations to sustain themselves, he said. But the tunnel phenomenon in the Gaza Strip is not new, he said. Shaban says they have been around for at least eight or maybe 10 years, long before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israeli officials say specialized IDF units tried even then to hunt down and dismantle such tunnels, but they acknowledge that tunnels can be rebuilt. An Israeli delegation is visiting Cairo on Monday to discuss a possible cease-fire with Hamas and what Egypt can do to better crack down on smuggling from its side. Meanwhile, Luisa Morgantini, the vice president of the European Parliament, visited Rafah inside the Gaza Strip on Sunday with eight other parliamentarians. During her brief visit, she said she saw homes destroyed by the Israeli operation and lots of women, children and the elderly taking shelter in cramped UNRWA schools. “It’s the first time that I have seen a population which has been bombed, and they cannot even leave,” she said. “The people of Gaza cannot even escape. One woman told me, ‘We are here to wake up to bombs that can kill us every morning.'” Morgantini said the aim of the trip was to visit the civilian population, which is “paying the price of the wrong politics of Hamas and the wrong politics of Israel.” She added: “I consider that the attitude of Israel is not different than that of Hamas, and in terms of proportion, they are killing many more civilians.” The European Parliament would discuss the Gaza conflict in a plenary session on Wednesday in Strasbourg, she said. “What we are going to say is that as the European Union, we cannot upgrade the relationship with Israel unless Israel starts to comply with international legalities and stops the bombing of Gaza, but also stops the settlements in the West Bank.”