By IBRAHIM BARZAK and DIAA HADID
Associated Press Writers
¶ GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) _ The Gaza Strip has lost its last lifeline after five days of Israeli bombing raids that destroyed dozens of smuggling tunnels under the sandy border with Egypt.
¶ The passages did not just supply Hamas with arms, but brought in flour, fuel and baby milk. For Gazans, already used to blackouts and shortages from an 18-month border blockade, the daily hunt for basics is ever more desperate _ though there are no reports of outright hunger.
¶ "I fed the children cooked tomatoes today, I can't find bread," Nima Burdeini, a mother of 11, said Wednesday at the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza-Egypt border.
¶ Israeli warplanes pounded the illicit tunnels as a part of the heavy bombardment of Hamas targets in Gaza that began Saturday. The hundreds of tunnels were seen as key to keeping Hamas in power.
¶ After the Islamic militants seized Gaza by force in June 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory, allowing in only basic goods and humanitarian supplies.
¶ Most of Gaza's 3,900 factories have closed, unable to import raw materials or export products. Construction halted and thousands of people were thrown out of work, deepening poverty in an area where most of the 1.4 million residents rely on U.N. food aid to get by.
¶ At times, Israel tightened the closure, restricting the inflow of fuel, cash and other key supplies. The blockade caused frequent power outages and interruptions in the water supply.
¶ In the two months leading up to Israel's offensive, Israel kept Gaza tightly sealed in an attempt to force Gaza militants to stop firing rockets at southern Israeli towns.
¶ The tunnels became a lifesaver for Hamas _ and for Gaza. Some were used to sneak in arms, including rockets that militants are now firing into Israel. But most of the underground passages were used to haul in consumer goods, from motor bikes to goats, refrigerators, flour and chocolates.
¶ The tunnel area that residents once jokingly referred to as Gaza's "duty-free zone" is now a wasteland of smashed concrete and deep craters, churned up by Israeli bombs.
¶ Late Wednesday, the tunnel area was struck by 19 times within a half hour, residents said. A Gaza health official, Moawiya Hassanain, said two people were killed and 42 wounded, including at least four children.
¶ Before that report, Israeli air force officials said the bombing campaign had demolished more than 80 tunnels. Egyptian officials said the number was at least 120.
¶ Residents say there are several hundred tunnels under the 15-kilometer (9-mile) border. Owners said they believe many tunnels are badly damaged, but tunnel workers fear going near the area to check because of the attacks.
¶ The tunnels are not visible from the air, but their locations are well known _ brazen owners put up colorful tents over tunnel entrances.
¶ Economist Omar Shaban estimated some two-thirds of goods sold in Gaza came through the tunnels. From diggers, drivers and haulers, the passages employed around 12,000 Gazans, Shaban said.
¶ "It was Gaza's new economy, even if it was just importing commercial goods," Shaban said.
¶ Tunnel owner Abu Sufian said he and his colleagues lost millions of dollars in merchandise that they had paid for, but that cannot be delivered now from the Egyptian side.
¶ Shaban said destroying the tunnels would bruise, but not bloody Hamas' Gaza rule. The militant group also funds itself through local taxes and a network of businesses controlled by loyalists, he said.
¶ But demolishing the tunnels has deepened civilian suffering.
¶ Throughout Gaza, Israel's bombings have brought Gaza's dwindling economic activity to a halt. For fear of getting caught in an airstrike, wholesalers aren't distributing their goods and many shopkeepers stay home.
¶ Shelves are emptying at grocery stores. In most areas, the few shops open are those whose owners live nearby. People don't venture beyond their own streets, leaving them hostage to shortages and rising prices. Flour for baking is in short supply, and there is little cash to buy goods because banks are closed.
¶ Burdeni, 45, the mother of 11, relies on U.N. aid to feed her children, but officials halted food distribution Dec. 18, citing shortages caused by the border closure.
¶ "People are doing pretty badly. Everyone we know is sharing whatever they have, not just with their families but with their neighbors," said Karen Abu Zayd, commissioner of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which helps needy Palestinians.
¶ "We haven't seen widespread hunger. We do see for the very first time _ I've been here for eight years and seeing new things nowadays _ people going through the rubbish dumps looking for things, people begging, which is quite a new phenomenon as well," she said by video link to reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
¶ Chris Gunness, a U.N. spokesman, said aid distribution should resume Thursday as Israel allows humanitarian aid into Gaza. The United Nations issued a new emergency appeal Wednesday for $34 million to deal with the new crisis.
¶ Burdeni's brother gives her small amounts of cash, but the search for food is becoming tougher. Burdeni found tomatoes Wednesday, cooking them when electricity flickered on in her area. "My children ate it with spoons," she said bitterly.
¶ In Gaza City, Hiba Dahshan, 22, said the price for a 110-pound bag of flour had jumped from $30 to $100. Her family can't afford it, but the local shop still has cheese and canned meat _ their menu the past three days. She can't find vegetables on her street.
¶ Despite the shortages, some people said they are eating more than usual _ because they're pinned down at home and gripped with anxiety from the sounds of bombs exploding around them. "I'm eating like a savage," Dahshan said.
¶ Bader Tulbeh, 46, described his eight children as "locusts" with newly enlarged appetites. "They are an army," Tulbeh said while purchasing vegetables from a vendor in central Gaza City.
¶ Maher Lubad, 45, a salaried worker in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahiya, bought lentils on credit from his cousin's grocery shop because he couldn't withdraw any money from the bank.
¶ Meanwhile, tunnel owners watch and wait.
¶ "Even as they bomb us, we are thinking of how to make new tunnels. Maybe we'll try go under the sea," said tunnel owner Abu Sufian.
¶ Associated Press writers Ibrahim Barzak reported from Gaza City andDiaa Hadid from Jerusalem. AP writer Edith M. Lederer in New York contributed to this report.