Sunday, November 25, 2012
Gaza conflict puts crimp in tunnel smuggling biz
RAFAH, Egypt — In this run-down, dusty town that straddles the border of the Gaza Strip, a long-thriving smuggling operation through tunnels has nearly come to a halt because of the violence between Israel and Hamas.
In the past week, Israeli airstrikes have destroyed many of the underground channels that connect Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt as part of its operation to stop the seemingly relentless rocket attacks against Israeli cities and towns.
Many smugglers in the Sinai have stopped their work.
FULL COVERAGE: Latest developments in Israel-Gaza conflict
"Israel can hit at any time," said Abou Khaled, an Egyptian with Palestinian roots who co-owns a tunnel. "It's too dangerous to work."
The tunnels are used to send things like construction materials and household supplies that are in short supply in Gaza, though there is always a markup in price. Illegal weapons such as rockets and mortars, cars and drugs have also been smuggled through, and people have passed undetected beneath the border.
Israel refuses to let concrete through its official Gaza border crossings out of fear Hamas will use it for military purposes, but it is a major good smuggled through here and can be used to build homes.
The tunnels are a security risk to Israel and the region, Middle East analysts say.
"You can smuggle weapons, have people going in and out," said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Security on the border and monitoring tunnels ... has to be done."
Nevertheless, Berti said, no amount of security will stop Hamas from getting weapons, and the only way to maintain calm is to give them a reason not to use arms, such as normalizing the border with Egypt. Like Israel, Egypt prevents many goods from crossing legally into Gaza.
Trade through the tunnels — more than 1,000 in all — grew when Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on many goods going in and out after Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007. Israel relaxed some restrictions two years ago as has Egypt since the ouster of former Egypt dictator Hosni Mubarak.
In mid-October, Palestinians in Gaza shot a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli helicopter that Israel believed had been smuggled in from Libya.
Some smugglers insist all the tunnels are closed because of the violence this week, but Rafah resident Mohammad Salama said goods — but not weapons — still pass through.
"There are some tunnels very secretly working," Salama said inside his lime-green shop piled high with stacks of sturdy bags used to send goods through. Smugglers move rapidly under concealment of night doing "simple work" such as sending fuel.
Sheik Hamdeen Abu Faisal is a judge in an unofficial sharia court. He said Egyptians in the Sinai desert here are so poor they must smuggle goods to Gaza for money. He blamed the smuggling trade on Cairo, which has ignored the economic plight of the mostly Bedouin Egyptians here.
He also said Cairo is indifferent to its people here. making the area more dangerous.
"Now every house here has guns and weapons, and this is a result of removing the power of the police," Faisal said. "That's why people come to this court to solve problems."
Some analysts say Egypt's failure to police the area is one reason it poses security risks. Several attacks against Israel and more than a dozen on a gas pipeline that sent gas to Israel have taken place here in the past year.
"We have every reason to be concerned about absence of security in the Sinai desert, which allows Hamas to transfer missiles from there," said Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv.
Cairo University lecturer Mazen Hassan suspects that some militants from Gaza find safety in the Sinai.
"Movement will be both ways through the tunnels and very difficult to tackle completely," Hassan said, adding that Egypt's attitude could lead to a direct confrontation with Israel.
Egypt said Gaza terrorists who crossed beneath the border were involved in an Aug. 5 attack that killed 16 Egyptian border guards. The terrorists then breached the Israeli border. Rockets have been fired on numerous occasions at Israel from the peninsula, and Egyptian police have been killed in domestic attacks.
Because militant groups here are neither well-organized nor large, threats from Sinai are not major, said Omar Ashour of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. However, he said, Israel may at some point decide it must respond to a provocation or attack.
"Whatever is launched from Sinai to Israel could be used to legitimize actions," Ashour said.
There are enough weapons coming into the region to bring about such a provocation.
Ahmed Ibrahim of the powerful Sawerka tribe acknowledges that some in North Sinai have anti-aircraft guns but that it's "very secret." In a sign of an increasing supply of weapons, Bedouin Mustapha Mahmoud said a Kalashnikov machine gun costs the Egyptian equivalent of about $1,300, down from $2,000 more than a year ago.
Egypt launched operations beginning in August to crack down on militancy, destroying some of the tunnels. But with the latest conflict, there is pressure for Egypt to continue to allow Hamas to get away with smuggling as happened under Mubarak, although Hamas said it would stop the trade if Egypt agreed to establish a free-trade zone with Gaza. Hamas, designated a terrorist group by the United States, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which leads Egypt's government.
"Now it's a complicated situation for the Egyptian government because there is a lot of pressure," said Mohammed El Mekkawi of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.
Until then, the smugglers say, they will keep up their work, as smuggling is sometimes the only job they can get in this land of few opportunities.
"I watch the roads for security and military vehicles," said Omar Mohammad, 18, who guards tunnels while goods are being smuggled. "It's a good job, and some of my friends do it, too."