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Gaza tunnels back in business January 23, 2009

Posted by ibrahimbaba in Uncategorized.
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By ALFRED de MONTESQUIOU, Associated Press Writer

RAFAH, Gaza Strip – After shoveling sand from their tunnel Thursday, the smugglers hoisted the prized cargo out of the narrow shaft: bags of potato chips — a minor luxury for Gazans tired of bland U.N. humanitarian rations.

All around them, other smuggling crews were getting merchandise flowing again through dozens of similar tunnels only days after a cease-fire in Israel‘s devastating offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt are back in business, despite the hundreds of tons of bombs and missiles that Israeli troops rained down on them.

The air reeked from spills of newly smuggled fuel being poured into plastic barrels as winches powered by noisy generators hauled more goods out of the wood-lined openings in the ground.

At other shafts, workers were still raising only dirt as their colleagues labored underground to dig out cave-ins caused by the Israeli bombardment. Egyptian border guards manned watchtowers barely 100 yards away.

Their fast recovery underlines the difficulty of stopping the smuggling and reinforces Israel’s fears that Gaza’s Hamas rulers will use the tunnel network to bring in weapons to rearm after the offensive.

“I fixed the damage in three days. We’re functional since this morning,” said Abu Wahda, who like others involved in the trade refused to be identified by anything but his nickname because of his smuggling activity.

By noon, the winch had pulled out 12 refrigerator-sized sacks of goods. Abu Wahda said the 1-yard-high passage under Gaza’s soft sands was not fully reinforced yet and was dangerous for his eight workers currently underground shuttling the cargo from the Egyptian side.

“But the worst danger comes from the sky, if they bomb again,” he said. A youth was posted nearby to watch for Israeli planes.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Thursday that Israel is willing to reopen hostilities if the bombings weren’t enough to stop the smuggling.

“If we need to do additional military operations to stop smuggling, it will be done,” she told Israel Radio. “Israel reserves the right to act against smuggling, period.”

Ending the smuggling — along with stopping Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel — was a key Israeli objective for its offensive, which killed 1,285 Palestinians, most of them civilians, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights counted.

The Israeli military said it destroyed 60 percent to 70 percent of the tunnels before Sunday’s cease-fire. Israel estimates there were about 300 tunnels before the offensive.

Smugglers in Rafah, a southern Gaza border town where nearly all the tunnels are dug, told The Associated Press that there had been about 1,000 tunnels operating before the bombardment, and that up to 90 percent of them were destroyed.

Most of the tunnels were dug after Israel and Egypt sealed off Gaza following Hamas’ violent takeover in June 2007.

Because of the tunnels, Rafah was among the places most bombed in Gaza. An AP reporter and photographer counted one missile or bomb — each estimated to be about one ton — dropped up to every five minutes through much of the night Jan. 16, and then during parts of Jan. 17, up to about 10 minutes before the Israeli-declared cease-fire began. Abu Rahman said there were no casualties in his area because all residents had fled after Israel dropped leaflets warning they would bomb near the tunnels.

Rafah city officials said 40 percent of Rafah houses were damaged and 250 destroyed, causing about $100 million in damage. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights says 50 people died in Rafah, including 39 civilians.

While Israel says Hamas uses tunnels to bring in weapons, residents say most tunnels are used to get around the Israeli blockade and import scarce commodities: fuel, clothes, building supplies, cigarettes, even the potato chips Gazans craved after a month of surviving on war rations and U.N. handouts.

The tunnels, about 45 feet beneath the surface, usually run for up to 800 yards from Gaza into Egypt, where their entrances are usually hidden in homes.

Abu Wahda and other smugglers who spoke to the AP on Thursday insisted they have never brought weapons for Hamas. They said Hamas directly operates its own tunnels in areas inaccessible to outsiders.

One smuggler, Abu Bilal, said he’d be happy to bring Hamas weapons, “but frankly, the resistance never asks us to.”

Hamas doesn’t comment on whether it brings weapons and cash through the tunnels, but considers them a legitimate business. “People won’t need the tunnels if the border (is) opened,” Ehab Ghussein, the spokesman for Hamas’ Interior Ministry, told AP.

The smuggling is surprisingly overt on the Gaza side. Hundreds of workers were operating Thursday in a mile-long stretch of battered tents and fake greenhouses, each with a tunnel operating or being dug inside. Dozens of other tunnel entrances were open and unhidden. Amid the frantic activity, a fire broke out in a smuggled fuel shipment, although there was no immediate report of injuries.

There’s even a makeshift snack shop servicing them, named “The Underground Crossings.” Its owner, Mahmoud Baroud, reopened soon after the cease-fire began and expected at least 200 customers for lunch Thursday.

“We even do deliveries if they’re too busy,” he said, stirring fried onions.

With so many tunnels out of service, the laws of supply and demand have driven prices up, said one smuggler, known as Abu Rahman. Sacks of goods such as potato chips, clothes or cigarettes that went for $40 each before the offensive could now go for as much as $400, he said.

Abu Rahman was still rebuilding his tunnel, eager to get back in business to pay off the debt he took on for the passage’s $120,000 construction. “It should take about a month. We’re going as fast as we can,” he said.

His tunnel was heavily damaged by airstrikes on Jan. 17, the offensive’s last day. Ten workers were shoveling underground Thursday to repair it, using a compass to dig straight and cell phones to coordinate with a relative of Abu Rahman who oversees the entrance on the Egyptian side.

Like most owners, Abu Rahman belongs to one the prominent Rafah clans that have family members on each side of the border.

Once it is ready, his tunnel should bring in about $2,000 a day, one-tenth going to his workers, and the rest for Abu Rahman and his partners.

Including workers and their families, 80 people depend on the tunnel for their livelihoods, Abu Rahman said.

“I don’t think it’s illegal. We need it to eat,” he said.

The activity is so mainstream that tunnels must now be registered with Hamas to account for the number of employees and to ensure nobody under 18 goes underground, the smugglers said. Hamas even requires owners pay $20,000 to families of employees who die in the tunnels, they said.

Ideas for stopping the smuggling have focused on increasing Egypt’s abilities to uncover and destroy them — with U.S. or European technical help. Egypt has rejected any international monitoring force on its side of the border as a violation of its sovereignty.

But Abu Rahman laughed off the threat of Egyptian police clamping down. “If they were serious about it, they could close all the tunnels in a day,” he said.

Egyptian security officials, however, say they are actively conducting raids on homes suspected of housing tunnels. Two were detected Thursday and the homeowners were held for questioning, one security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of Egyptian regulations. The official said a third tunnel collapsed, injuring a Gazan inside.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit insisted earlier this month that Egypt was doing its best to close the tunnels. But he called those who believe weapons are smuggled in through tunnels are “deluded,” saying Hamas’ weapons come by sea.

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