It is becoming increasingly clear that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is colluding with Israel and the US to shut down the smuggling tunnels that link Gaza to Egypt and account for more than 30 per cent of the goods consumed in the besieged and blockaded coastal strip.

Recently, the Egyptians have been pumping water into the tunnels to disrupt operations and collapse the sandy sides of the tunnels. In response, some tunnel owners have drawn out the water with pumps installed to remove rainwater during downpours.

Egyptian troops have also, over the past two weeks, established checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula, stopped and searched lorries, and confiscated goods bound for Gaza.

The tunnels, which lie under the southern border of Gaza with Egypt, carry all manner of merchandise: food, medical supplies, fuel, spare parts for vehicles, cement, gravel and wood for construction, cars as well as weapons for Palestinians fighting Israel.

The tunnels are Gaza’s lifeline. They have been sunk along the border and operate openly, providing employment for hundreds of Palestinian construction workers who would be jobless without the tunnels, as well as goods for shopkeepers to sell to consumers.

Since the tunnels began to operate, a new class of “tunnel millionaires” has sprouted up in Gaza.

A friend told me he had, foolishly, declined an offer to invest in a tunnel.

“If I had, I would be a rich man now,” he said.

The Hamas government of Gaza collects taxes on goods moving through the tunnels and funds the administration with the money collected.

The pretext Egypt has put forward for trying to put a stop to the tunnel trade was an attack on the border that killed 16 border policemen. Cairo blames Palestinians from Gaza who are accused of entering Sinai through the tunnels, but the Palestinians reject this allegation.

Faced with the Palestinian dismissal of the accusation, Cairo is now saying that it faces a two-way flow of arms into and out of the strip, and argues that this is destabilising Sinai. This is a nonsensical argument. Hamas would not export weapons smuggled into the strip at considerable cost and difficulty while Sinai is awash with arms from Libya. Indeed, all of Egypt is being flooded with weapons left over from the Libyan revolt.

Furthermore, Sinai bedouins are the most likely perpetrators of the attack. Energised by ultraconservative Salafist jihadists from abroad and armed with Libyan weapons and explosives, the bedouins — who suffer neglect and discrimination — have been increasingly assertive since the uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The bedouins have, in particular, targeted the pipeline carrying Egyptian natural gas to Israel — and, unfortunately, Jordan — and forced Cairo to halt the export of gas to Israel.

During the Mubarak era, the army used to bomb or blow up or pump gas into the tunnels, occasionally killing Palestinian workers. Scores of tunnels, which once numbered 2,500 to 3,000, were damaged or destroyed in sporadic campaigns.

However, since the brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was elected president, the Egyptians have stepped up their drive against the tunnels. It is estimated that 150-200 tunnels have been shut since the Sinai incident.

The tunnels were the Palestinian response to the tightening of the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2007 after Hamas took control of the strip. At that time, Israel allowed into Gaza only enough food to provide Palestinians with a calculated number of calories a day and a limited amount of medicines. No construction materials were permitted to enter, no clothing, no raw materials for Gaza’s small-scale manufacturers or fertilisers for farmers.

Israel promised to lift the blockade when Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinians in 2006, was freed. But it was compelled by international public opinion to ease restrictions in 2010, following the assault by Israeli commandos on a Turkish ferry carrying activists to Gaza with the aim of breaking the blockade. Nine Turks were killed, causing widespread outrage against Israel’s policy of depriving Gazans of a decent standard of living.

When Shalit was, eventually, freed in 2012, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not honour the pledge made by his predecessor Ehud Olmert to totally lift the blockade. Again Israel eased some restrictions, but Gaza cannot import all its needs through Israel or export its produce and manufactured goods.

By clamping down on smuggling tunnels before Israel has met its obligation under international law to lift the blockade and end the collective punishment of 1.6 million Gazans, Egypt is playing Israel’s game of maintaining pressure on Hamas by denying a decent standard of living to the inhabitants of the strip.

Israel’s game is also the game of the subservient US, which has dubbed Hamas a “terrorist” organisation because it refuses to capitulate to the Israeli occupation.

Under challenge from opposition groups and “the street”, the brotherhood regime seeks to attract the support of the US and, by association, Israel for two reasons.

The brotherhood does not want to weaken Morsi’s ties to the military, which depends on $1.3 billion a year of US funding for purchasing US-made equipment and weapons.

Egypt desperately needs external aid to finance consumption and its budget. Cairo expects to receive $900 million from the US and is negotiating a loan of $4.8 billion from the US-controlled International Monetary Fund.

Paradoxically, Morsi is also following a policy that could alienate the US and Israel. Yearning to become a regional leader, Morsi would dearly love to broker a reunification deal between Hamas and Fateh, which administers Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank. Perhaps he believes that knocking out the smuggling tunnels will compel Hamas to agree to terms set by Fateh.

However, Hamas, which has ruled Gaza for more than five years, is not willing to cede power to the Fateh-dominated Palestinian Authority. Therefore, reunification is not on the cards. Instead, a senior Fateh source said that “reconciliation” could be achieved with goodwill on both sides — particularly if the US and Israel refrain from putting pressure on Fateh/PA to reject reconciliation.

For Morsi, a Hamas-Fateh reconciliation would be a boost, although not as much of a boost at reunification. He is unlikely to achieve this aim if he alienates Hamas and the citizens of Gaza by destroying the smuggling tunnels that just about make life bearable in the strip.