In Rafah, no light at the end of the tunnels

Gaza digging crews describe dangerous post-Cast Lead reality.

smuggling tunnel renovation 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
smuggling tunnel renovation 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The life of a tunnel smuggler in Rafah has just gotten more difficult. Just ask 27-year-old "Abu al-Abed," one of 13 partners who co-own a tunnel located a short stroll away from the Egypt-Gaza border. Since his tunnel started operating a few weeks before Israel's military operation in Gaza, he has smuggled old-fashioned kerosene stoves, generators, automobile brake pads, chocolates, TV screens and faucet heads. He says he only delivers goods requested by Palestinian merchants inside Gaza who are forced to buy smuggled items due to Israel's tight 19-month blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. But Abed's 20-meter deep tunnel was slightly damaged during Operation Cast Lead. It took him and his partners a week to repair and cost them at least $4,000. In addition, Egypt has recently installed cameras and motion sensors to detect smuggling tunnels and to close them down. The Egyptians "are closing the tunnels because the Jews and the Americans are putting pressure on them," Abed told The Jerusalem Post. Smugglers say tight security can cause delays in getting shipments through and require that tunnel exits be dug farther out. And since the war, he says, business has decreased by some 60 percent. Merchants are more reluctant to order goods from tunnel smugglers, fearing that the tunnels will be attacked and their merchandise damaged or destroyed. Abed says tunnel owners used to make between $20,000 and $30,000 for one large shipment smuggled in over one or two days, but are now earning only around $10,000 a batch, he said. "The situation now is dangerous," he said, noting that the media are very focused on the smuggling phenomenon. "The tunnels don't bring anything but goods. If [Israel] opens the crossings, the tunnels will close on their own. Goods will be cheaper." Israel destroyed hundreds of tunnels during Operation Cast Lead that it says were used for arms smuggling. But smugglers here say there is a small number of specific tunnels used for weapons smuggling, and the vast majority of tunnels are used to smuggle necessities. Weapons tunnels are controlled by Hamas and other factions, but they are likely deep underground and extremely difficult to locate, they say. "It's all hidden from us," Abed said. "We don't know where they are. No one knows. It's a secret." Another tunnel owner, who was working meters away and gave his name as Muhammad, also insisted that he doesn't deal with weapons. "We are only dealing with food, chocolate, diapers," he said. "There are people who specifically deal with weapons. Not just anyone works in those tunnels, only specific people. We don't deal with this." One of the many young workers gathered around him also chimed in. "We are just poor people," he said. "We are only looking for money. We have children and we need to feed them." They also say it would be impossible to smuggle weapons since they work out in the open, where Israel could easily locate them and attack. Muhammad said that Egyptians on the other side sometimes "close their eyes" during a tight Israeli blockade. "But if there is no siege, they will close off the area," he said. Despite the rather substantial income tunnel operators earn, they insist that they would prefer that Israel lifted its blockade. "If Israel opens the border, we will close the tunnels," al-Abed said. "What would we bring? Goods? It will be cheaper to bring them through the crossings." Just as he was talking, a strong explosion sounded in the distance. Egypt, he said, had destroyed another tunnel from its side with explosives and gas. The explosion was a solemn reminder of the risks smugglers take in their field. Many tunnel workers have died or have been injured either by Israeli or Egyptian bombings of tunnels, because of a tunnel collapse, or because a leaking gas canister being smuggled was ignited by a cigarette. Workers have also lost fingers while getting their hands caught in electric pulleys used inside the tunnels, he said. "It's a good business," said Abu al-Abed, who is the new father of six-month old daughter. "But it's dangerous."