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.
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"Half the people in Rafah rely on smuggling to make their living," he says. "If you suddenly took that away from them, you'd have thousands storming the Egyptian border. Egypt would either have to allow them to break through – embarrassing – or shoot a lot of them, which would enrage the Egyptian people. Mubarak's no fool."Skip to next paragraph
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He also says that while Egyptian border guards can be bribed to occasionally to look the other way, "there have always been rules to the game. Egypt will tolerate rifles, bullets, things like that. But if we go too far, they'd shut us down."
On a visit to the border with a team of low-level tunnel diggers, it does appear that preparations have been made for an eventual breach.
Early this decade, Israel razed hundreds of Palestinian homes nestled along the Rafah border and built a 25-foot-high metal wall to protect Israeli patrols from sniper fire as they patrolled a narrow no man's land between Egypt and Gaza. That strip, called the Philadelphia Corridor, has been rarely patrolled since Israel's withdrawal.
Today, for at least a mile, the bottom of the wall has been partially welded through, enough so that a visitor can peek through and get a look at the Egyptian border guards a few hundred feet to the south. "Some explosives, and a dump truck and this whole wall could be pushed over," says one of the diggers, a 26-year-old who runs a five-man team.
How the tunnel system works
He's near the bottom of the smuggling food chain, and explains how it works. A shaft is dropped at least 10 feet below ground, since the wall extends that far, and tunneling begins, with a mechanized winch and bucket system to clear the soil.
After two months of intermittent digging toward a spot selected by Bedouin contacts on the Egyptian side, found using hand-held GPS units, they run up a small probe. Once the Egyptian smugglers find it, they move goods into place, open the hole, crank the merchandise to Gaza using winches, and then close it again until the following night. "If we're lucky, we can keep a tunnel like that going for a few months before it's shut down."
Though Abu Mohammed and other Gaza smugglers say they don't take as much care to conceal the smuggling tunnels, they say they long for the good old days before Hamas routed the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last year.
Then, the bare-knuckle political competition between the two Palestinian factions fueled a brisk trade in small arms, with AK-47s bought from weapons dealers in Egypt for $400 fetching $800 or more. Now, after years of smuggling and with Hamas having seized most of the weapons that Fatah once held, the bottom has fallen out of the weapons market, say smugglers.
"Hamas might be bringing in some weapons through the border, but not many," says Abu Mohammed. "They don't really need to."
Still, Hamas clearly sees the tunnels as a strategic asset. Two cousins who dig and operate tunnels say they had to abandon one recently because Hamas complained it was running too close to one of its own. They also say Hamas has begun to collect high taxes on cigarettes – a box of 500 cigarette packs that can be bought in Egypt for $700 sells for $2,000 in Gaza – in order to take control of that trade themselves.
"We need Fatah to come back, they were easier to pay off," says one. "Hamas wants to run a lot of things for themselves."