Gaza's tunnel smugglers ready to get back to work after break due to Gaza-Egypt border breach

AP Photo JRL826

By DIAA HADID

Associated Press Writers

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Gaza's tunnel smugglers are getting back to business after a forced break during the massive Gaza-Egypt border breach, despite renewed promises from Israel and Egypt to shut down the illegal trade.

Egypt closed the border more than a week ago, ending 12 days of anarchy that allowed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to stock up on cigarettes, cement and fuel in Egyptian border towns. But with the blockade of Gaza -- enforced by both Israel and Egypt -- back in place, a scarcity of goods and rising prices will fuel the black market again.

Smuggler Abu Diya and his cohorts, who temporarily suspended trafficking through the dozens of tunnels the run under the border for lack of customers, said they'll resume operations once it makes economic sense, probably in about three weeks.

"Palestinians can do the impossible to break this boycott," Abu Diya said. "Whatever Israel does, we'll find a way around it."

Abu Diya and another operator and two tunnel workers described their work to The Associated Press recently. One owner also allowed an AP reporter to tour his tunnel, hidden in a crammed Rafah suburb.

All those who talked to the AP said they feared identification by Israel, Egypt and Hamas, with most insisting on anonymity. Abu Diya gave a partial name. Israel and Egypt try to destroy the tunnels, while Hamas members have been known to demand a cut of the profits.

On a recent day, while Egyptian forces used metal containers to seal their breached border, tunnel owners prepared to open shop. Hundreds of yards away from the Egyptians, carpenters cut wood into the beams used to reinforce tunnels, preparing for the tunnels' reopening.

For years, weapons were big business for the smugglers. Palestinian militants used the arms to attack Israel or each other during the internal clashes between Hamas and its rival Fatah, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

But after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June, it confiscated large weapons caches from Fatah fighters, and demand has dropped. Abu Diya, who wore an army-green jacket and carried a U.S.-made M16 assault rifle, said he charged $300 per gun before June, but now only gets $100.

These days Gaza's borders are virtually sealed, and the demand is for consumer goods: Abu Diya's last haul before his involuntary vacation was a shipment of personal computers. He's also pulled in Turkish socks and Brazilian garlic.

The Gaza smugglers refuse to say where the weapons come from. But other goods, they say, are usually provided by traders who pay fees to use the tunnel.

Abu Diya said he clears about $10,000 a month -- a princely sum in Gaza, where most live on less than $2 a day.

Rafah's local economy also thrives on the tunnels.

A typical tunnel employs at least 35 men as pulley-controllers, lifters, security and assistants on both sides of the border. The system also needs specialist electricians, carpenters, builders and diggers to operate, the tunnel owners said. On the Egyptian side, those guarding tunnels receive a cut of the profits, as do Egyptian guards who look the other way, tunnel owners said.

Local Hamas leaders can demand a cut of around $1000 per haul on tunnels they discover, a means for the militant group to raise revenue from the lucrative trade, said one tunnel owner, though Hamas has not discovered his passageway.

The militant group has its own trusted tunnel operators, the owners said, to smuggle in sensitive weaponry, but uses other traders for general arms, like guns, explosives and bullets.

The thin young men who work in the tunnels are paid $100 a day, said Abu Diya, to haul goods using an electrical pulley system. Though the pay is good, the difficult conditions, including fears of a deadly collapses, make it a job for only the desperate.

The half-mile tunnel owned by Abu Diya starts with a 20-yard drop leading to a narrow passage that gradually slopes upward toward the Egyptian side, he said.

The journey can be harrowing, but most Gaza residents have no other way for to enter or exit the territory because of the blockade.

Abu Diya described young men shot in the knees in factional fighting who have their legs tied to rods to avoid more damage to their smashed joints as they are dangled down the chute and then dragged by pulley into Egypt. Young foreign brides crawl on their hands and knees through the dark tunnel to meet their Palestinian husbands. Most of the men who work the tunnels strip down to their underwear in the humid passages, workers said.

Despite the apparent drop in the weapons trade, Egypt remains under pressure from Israel and the U.S. to stop the smuggling over concerns that it is still providing arms for Gaza's militant rulers.

Abu Diya said Hamas hauled in tons of new weapons and explosives during the breach.

Yuval Diskin, chief of Israel's Shin Bet security service, provided a similar assessment to Israel's Cabinet recently, saying that long-range rockets, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles had entered Gaza while the border was open.

Cairo's relations with Hamas have soured since the breach, and officials there say plugging the tunnels is a matter of national security.

The U.S. has offered millions in aid for engineering equipment to find the tunnels. One Egyptian security official said his country had hired informants on both sides to squeal on smugglers.

"The next phase will be more strict, not for the sake of Israel ... but for the sake of Egypt's national security," he said. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

But Gaza smugglers said Egyptian guards can be bribed, and many were before the break. And one tunnel owner said it's unlikely Egypt can stop the smugglers.

"There's too many people interested in keeping the tunnels open. There's too much money to be made," the tunnel owner said.

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Associated Press writers Omar Sinan in Cairo, Egypt, and Ashraf Sweilam in Rafah, Egypt, contributed to this report.