ARISH, Egypt - As I write, we can hear the dull thud of explosions in the distance. Israeli airstrikes continue to blast targets in southern Gaza. Merciless bombing of the small Gaza Strip continues into a third week. I heard some people here in Egypt wonder if the Israeli Air Force must be running out of places and people to target. But perhaps the surveillance drones we heard and saw flying over the Rafah border crossing today hunted down more spots on which bombers could fix their cross-hairs. Perhaps they spotted underground tunnels. The Israeli government has, reportedly, already destroyed 80% of the tunnels that connect Gaza with the outside world. It's common knowledge that a vast network of tunnels, some say as many as 1700, were constructed, many from outside Gaza's territorial borders, leading into the Territory. Israel claims the tunnels are legitimate targets because the Hamas government can use them to import weapons. But the buildup of the tunnel industry was fueled by desperation for needed goods, within Gaza, a desperation caused by Israel's decision, over the past 16 months, to tighten the thumbscrews of its blockade on Gaza. If the blockade continues, and if the tunnels are completely destroyed, besieged Gazans will be cut off from secure supplies of food, medicine and fuel, yet another terrifying prospect for people who are desperate to protect their children from any greater harm.
Supposedly concerned for Israeli security, the United States supports the Israeli government's objective of eliminating Hamas's capacity to fire primitive rockets into Israel. The extensive tunnel industry may be used for weapons transport. I believe it's wrong to transport weapons, and it's wrong to develop, store, sell or use them. Distant thuds reinforce this belief, but if the U.S. and Israel believe importation of weapons via underground tunnels is wrongful, then the U.S. transfer of sophisticated weaponry to Israel must, seen in perspective, be abominable, given the slaughter Israel has inflicted on Gazan civilians since the airstrikes began on December 27th.
The taxpayers of the U.S. provided Israel with F16 fighter jets and missiles to carry out these attacks. From 2001 – 2006, the United States transferred to Israel more than $200 million worth of spare parts to fly its fleet of F16s. Last year, the United States signed a $1.3 billion contract with Raytheon to transfer to Israel thousands of TOW, Hellfire, and "bunker buster" missiles. In July 2008, the United States gave Israel 186 million gallons of JP-8 aviation jet fuel.
U.S. donations of jet fuel enable Israel to fire missiles into Gazan homes, streets, schools and hospitals. Meanwhile, ambulances drivers in Gaza, also directly targeted, don't have enough diesel fuel to bring injured and wounded people to the Rafah border crossing, where patients might be allowed to enter Egypt for critically needed care.
Within Gaza, even before December 27th, civilians lacked essential fuels to power the main power plant, which operated at about 2/3 capacity. Now, it's inoperative. When trucks don't have fuel, this means that rubbish can't be collected. Hundreds of tons of rubbish went uncollected in Gaza because of the blockade. 77,000 cubic meters of raw and partially treated sewage were dumped into the sea. Farmers couldn't operate 70% of their agricultural wells. Power cuts affected hospitals, water pumps, sewage treatment plants, bakeries and other facilities dependent on back-up diesel generators.
Now Gazans not only face the consequences of a destroyed health care system and rising sickness due to water-borne diseases, they also face the reality that Hamas could be forced to sign a cease-fire that doesn't allow for opening the Rafah border and which insists that Egypt assume responsibility to prevent usage of underground tunnels. In exchange for relief from cowering under bombs fired by sophisticated weapon systems, Gazans would be required to endure slow motion death through systematic cutoffs of their access to food, medicine, and potable water. This is why it is so important for people all over the world to insist that Israel not only stop attacking Gaza, but also end the brutal and lethally punitive blockade imposed on Gaza.
Here in Egypt, the government has stated that it will undertake responsibility to be an effective partner in negotiating a cease-fire.
Israelis expect Egyptians to stop the tunnel industry. Egypt would be responsible to assure that no one enters a tunnel, builds a tunnel, or is an accomplice to maintaining a tunnel. Already, any Egyptian caught inside a tunnel faces 15 years in prison. How much better for all concerned if the cease-fire negotiations asked the Egyptians to maintain an open border with Gaza, to lift the punitive blockade, and to assist in the immediate and ongoing transport of goods and services that could help Gaza rebuild and assume responsibility, above-ground, for maintaining its citizenry and its sovereignty.
Egypt, the second largest recipient of military aid from the U.S., will be encouraged to use threat and force to curtail the tunnels, supposedly in the name of insuring security for Israel. But who will challenge the obscenely bloated so-called "defense industry" that allows elite gangs, some comfortably occupying the board rooms of major corporations, to supply a repressive, immoral and illegal occupation force with the disproportionate capacity to kill, using conventional weapons against civilian people who have no means to escape?
U.S. support for hard-line, extremist Israeli government policies again represents tunnel vision by choice. U.S. foreign policy makers can begin a cure for this dangerously impaired vision by recognizing the basic human rights of all Palestinian people, and at this crucial moment by caring for the survival and dignity of Gazan people, especially those for whom meeting basic needs depends on what might come through a tunnel.
Kathy is writing from Arish, a town near the Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza. Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola New Orleans and Audrey Stewart are also in Egypt and contributed to this article.