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Gaza tunnel smugglers stay busy

Alleged weapons smuggling in tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border has become a major sticking point amid President Bush's new push for peace in the Middle East.

By Correspondent / January 14, 2008

Labyrinth: A Palestinian tunnel-digger wearing a mask to conceal his identity removes sand from an underground passage in Rafah, Gaza.

Kevin Frayer/AP/File

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Rafah, Gaza

A visitor to the Palestinian border with Egypt completely ignorant of the problems of this part of the world might imagine for a moment that the Gaza Strip is home to a species of giant and unusually industrious ant.

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In dozens of spots along the narrow swath of land between the Palestinian town of Rafah and the metal fence that marks the Egyptian border, the region's sandy soil is piled high in crescents that fan out from holes leading underground.

This is the work of hundreds of Palestinian smugglers who maintain Gaza's only independent lifeline to the outside world and who are frustrating Israel's efforts to seal off the strip from all but the most basic humanitarian trade.

Though weapons and other goods have been smuggled through the cramped subterranean network for more than two decades, never have the signs of smuggling activity been so obvious or Israel's frustration with the business so great.

With Israeli claims that the tunnels are a conduit for weapons, the smugglers' role in the Gazan economy and conflict have become a major obstacle to President Bush's new push for peace in the region. The administration has promised to put more pressure on Egypt to shut down the tunnel network.

But it's not clear how much in the way of weapons is currently coming through the tunnels.

Less weapons, more cigarettes

Smugglers in Rafah say the big business these days is in cigarettes, car parts, and Viagra. "We're businessmen," says one of Gaza's tunnel smugglers. "When guns are selling we bring guns. These days, it's mostly the cigarettes. A month ago we brought in a load of cheese."

Israel has shut down most imports and exports from Gaza since the Islamist movement Hamas took over the territory last summer, in the hopes that economic suffering in Gaza will undermine political support for Hamas.

But Abu Mohammed, one of Gaza's smuggling kingpins whose family has been in the business since the early 1980s, snorts out a laugh when asked whether he's taking the new focus on tunnels to heart.

"When Israel controlled this border, we tunneled. When they left, we tunneled. And now the Egyptians are supposed to do what Israel never could? These are just political talking points," he says. "I don't think Israel really wants the tunnels shut, and I know that Egypt doesn't."

His argument for why Israel might want the tunnels, despite all their public statements, veers toward the conspiratorial: It gives Israel an issue to complain about and use to avoid negotiating with the Palestinians in good faith. But his argument for Egyptian reluctance makes more sense.

In his mind, the tunnels that have enriched him and his extended family – they live in a five-house compound with orchards and fields – act as an economic and social safety valve that serve Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's interests as much as his own.

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