Gaza tunnels buzz again despite strikes

Israel targeted tunnels again Wednesday with airstrikes.

Ahmad Khateib/NEWSCOM
Gaza: A Palestinian inspected a tunnel Wednesday that runs under the border with Egypt. The work is perilous but lucrative.

The white canopies that cover the entrances are like a welcome mat – to the land of the tunnels.

Below the coverings, the Palestinian tunnel operators are back at work. At least, that is, those with businesses still intact after a brutal 22-day war with Israel.

They are in a both lucrative and perilous position. On the one hand, they make substantial earnings from the underground march of commerce that goes on between Rafah, the Gaza Strip's southernmost town, and Egypt, which has a border town by the same name.

On the other, the Palestinians who live and work here are some of the most likely targets of renewed Israeli bombing, despite a cease-fire that each side unilaterally declared 10 days ago.

Early Wednesday, the Israeli air force bombed smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border in response to the killing of an Israeli soldier a day earlier. The Israeli soldier had been patrolling the border of Gaza Tuesday on the Israeli side when he was hit in a remote-control bomb attack; three others were injured. Reuters reported that a little-known Islamist group claimed responsibility. Israel's Haaretz, sourcing Shin Bet [Israel's internal intelligence agency], said that the bomb had been planted by "a Hamas breakaway group identified with the Al-Qaida-affiliated Global Jihad."

Adding another fissure, Palestinian militants fired a rocket at Israel's western Negev region on Wednesday, causing no casualties. Both sides have rattled the fragile cease-fire.

About 90 percent of the tunnels in Rafah have been destroyed by Israeli air raids since the war began on Dec. 27, according to the men who make their livings in "tunnel town."

Of those damaged, many are already in the process of repair. Others went unscathed, though people here are not sure how long that will be the case.

"There is nothing to do but to rebuild them again," says Abu Ahmed, chief operator and part-owner of a tunnel here. Knowing that the tunnels remain high on Israel's hit list – Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Sunday that she supported bombing again – most here keep a low profile, reluctant to talk to journalists, give full names, or be photographed.

Abu Ahmed says he has approximately 30 partners who share the profits of running one successful tunnel. This one, like most others, looks like a well. But with a system of pulleys, it allows a tunnel runner to lower himself into the earth and head across the border.

All that comes in here, he insists, are needed commercial goods and household items, from cooking gas to cola to cigarettes to cellphones.

"Weapons don't come through these tunnels. That would be too out in the open for everyone to see and for the Israelis to strike," he says over a glass of cooked tea, waiting under his white canopy for a new delivery. He speaks loudly to compete with the din of generators needed to run the tunnels. Some of the entrances have been crushed by the airstrikes, leaving the whole area looking like a cross between a dirty sandbox and a scrap-metal junkyard.

"All the military factions have their own tunnels, and they bring in their weapons through those. Without these tunnels, we wouldn't have enough to eat," he says, laying responsibility on the doorstep of Israel and the international community for keeping much of Gaza closed to the outside world. "We blame Israel and all the Arab countries for this mess they have made for us," he says.

Nearby, another tunnel worker tells a similar story. "We bring in things like rice, potato chips, other kinds of food, medications," says Mohammed Sawalni. "These are not weapons tunnels. The Israelis just say that to justify their actions."

In Khan Yunis, also in southern Gaza, hundred of people line up to buy cooking gas. One man is bitter about prices: "A jerry can that cost $20 here is about $1 in Egypt," he says.

At least some tunnels are being used to smuggle weapons and explosives – or the materials to make them – into the Gaza Strip. But it seems clear that many tunnels have become a critical factor in the Palestinian economy. The tunnels have become wider and more "professional"; even large household items, such as refrigerators and televisions, come through here.

Moreover, the tunnels have become such a regular facet of "imports" that Hamas now takes a cut – or "customs duties," in its preferred parlance – of all goods that come in through the tunnels. Two tunnel operators interviewed for this article noted that their take is only a limited share of the profits. Some profit goes to Hamas, and some to Egyptian officials on the other side. The Hamas government, which took full control here after a coup in June 2007, even runs a tunnel police force – known as shurtat il-anfaq – that keeps an eye on things and makes sure tunnels taxes are paid.

Some people here note that this makes for an ironic catch. While Israel was trying to throttle Hamas by keeping the borders virtually shut over the past year-and-a-half, Hamas discovered an indigenous revenue-generating mechanism by regulating and expanding the use of underground tunnels to Egypt.

"[Some] of the Palestinians, especially those living in Rafah, have become very dependent on that tunnel income," says Mukhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza. "This smuggling was going on even under the eyes of the Israelis, which is why Hamas and others have had the ability to shoot rockets at Israel since 2000. Israel could not control it then either, but they're asking Egypt to control it now."

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