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.
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.
"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."
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."