In Egypt's Rafah, tunnel denial is the way of life

Officials and locals insist arms enter Gaza by sea or via Israel.

rafah sign 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
rafah sign 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
All was quiet on the streets of this sleepy Sinai town on Saturday, just one week after Israel's three-week offensive against Hamas ended on the other side of the border. Beduin in Egyptian galabiyas (caftans) and head coverings milled around the half-paved streets in small groups. Most shops were closed for the weekend and few customers were in sight. Scores, if not hundreds, of armed soldiers and policemen were stationed at checkpoints all around the city, closely eyeing and checking cars that drove by. But it is around here, practically underneath the feet of this rural border town, that the lucrative, underground world of smuggling into the Gaza Strip has flourished for the past several years. It is hardly a secret that hundreds of tunnels were used to transport everything - livestock, fuel, home appliances, viagra, weapons and explosives - into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which has faced a tight Israeli blockade for 18 months. On Sunday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the cabinet there was a build-up of arms in Sinai destined for Hamas, and that Egypt was working to prevent their transfer. One of the goals of Operation Cast Lead was to halt the smuggling through these tunnels. Also on Sunday, a US official confirmed that a member of its defense attache's office in Cairo visited Egypt's border with Gaza on a routine and previously scheduled trip. In Egyptian Rafah, one gets the sense that denial is more than just a river. "The executive [security] forces are in complete control," insists Rafah Mayor Gen. Sameh Issa Abdul Wahab, who entered his post less than two months ago. "Any [tunnel] that is discovered, the authorities destroy it immediately." Regarding the sensitive issue of weapons' smuggling, he said, "We have great control in completely preventing it... because if weapons were being smuggled, they would be discovered... All the smuggled items are medicine and food." Abdul Wahab even denied that Egyptian border guards had ever been bribed. "It's not possible that there would be a bribe," he said. "There is nothing like that; maybe between the smugglers themselves, but an official? No." Yet Rafah's top city official also acknowledges the difficulty in locating the tunnels. "You walked on the street. Did you see tunnels?" he asked a foreign visitor rhetorically. When told that some were reportedly connected to people's homes, he responded: "It's not possible to enter your home, and open your door and damage it... What can we do?... Will we go to every house and try to enter it?" Egypt claims that most of the weapons smuggled into Gaza come by sea, something that Israel disputes. A front page article on Friday in Al-Ahram cited an Egyptian official who said there was evidence that most of the smuggling of weapons into Gaza was done through Israel by Israeli citizens. He did not detail the evidence, however. The general-secretary of Egypt's National Council for Human Rights, Mukhlis Qutb, said the buying and selling of smuggled weapons, including the smuggling of weapons taken from IDF warehouses by Israeli soldiers, all takes place inside Israel. Egypt is pushing to at least double and even triple the number of its troops on the Philadelphi Corridor, arguing that it is the most effective way to stop the smuggling that links its country to Gaza. The issue has been a particularly sore spot for Egypt, which insists it has the will but insufficient resources. This would require that Israel waive the troop limits for the eastern Sinai in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. An Egyptian official said on Sunday that "great progress" has been made in Egyptian-Israeli negotiations concerning stabilizing a truce between Israel and Hamas, as well as "securing the borders" that is stopping the smuggling. An American team of at least 40 specialists arrived six months ago to train Egyptian forces to use advanced American technology to better fight smuggling. Last week, this technology was being assembled and it may already be in use. Egyptians also argue that lifting Israel's blockade on Gaza would go a long way to reduce the smuggling. They say the tunnels were mostly used to transport basic necessities that 1.4 million Palestinian people have been denied due to the blockade. Local officials also downplay the entire tunnel issue, saying there are not as many tunnels as Israel claims. "If they were 10, for example, Israel would say there are 1,000. It wants to influence public opinion and find a justification to strike the Gazans or the Palestinians," said Mona Barhoum, a member of the North Sinai Governate local council and a public relations official in Rafah. "It wants to have control over [Gaza]." Barhoum agreed with the Egyptian position that most weapons are smuggled into Gaza via Israel rather than through Egypt. "Not all Israelis are angels and prophets," she said. "There are merchants who are interested in making a penny." But she also denied that such merchants existed in Egypt, saying that a sentence of 25 years in prison for arms smuggling was a harsh enough deterrent for people to avoid the illegal trade. "Citizens here are smart, they don't play with fire," she said. Barhoum added that she has never known anyone who has smuggled weapons, but would turn in her own brother if she found out that he were doing so, because it's against the law. If Israelis complain about smuggling, it should allow Egypt to increase its forces at the border, she said. Samir Faris, a retired governmental school principal whose living room contains a portrait of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, whom he admires for his peace efforts, agreed that "Israel was lying" about the tunnels. "If there were tunnels, then they were created after they initiated the blockade... only because [the Palestinians] need food and bread," he said. But when asked about Egyptian statements that tunnels existed even before Israel withdrew its soldiers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Faris said that Palestinians collaborating with Israel had built the tunnels "to create chaos on the borders between Egypt and Israel so that the image of Egypt would be damaged in the eyes of the world." Mayada Ahmad, a convenience store employee who has relatives on the Palestinian side of Rafah, also denied that arms had been taken through these tunnels. "These words are not true," she said. And if the tunnels were used to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip? "Does this land belong to Israel or to Palestine?" she asked, suggesting that Gazans had a right to fight Israel. "It belongs to Palestine," she said. Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.