The following article concerns the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, and was published on Monday at L’Objectivité Comme Méthode (my translation):
The “Secret” of the Smuggling Tunnels of Hamas
More than a thousand tunnels allow Hamas to smuggle increasingly sophisticated arms.
In Rafah, they are called the “new rich”: young businessmen in shiny 4X4s who have made fortunes in the smuggling industry using tunnels from Egypt, employing an army of laborers, the unemployed workers or kids who swagger on motorcycles through the streets of this border town south of the Gaza Strip. For Israel, an end to the smuggling of weapons is a precondition for halting its military offensive. For Hamas, these tunnels are, on the contrary, essential for staying afloat in the face of a blockade of Gaza and the military confrontation with the IDF.
The Rafah tunnels are a bit like l’Arlésienne by Alphonse Daudet. For a long time, everyone was talking about them, but no one saw them. And for good reason: until the second intifada in 2000, their owners were protected by officials of the security services of the Palestinian Authority, who blocked access. The leaders for their protection received part of the revenue. The traffic was in cigarettes, milk, clothing, spare parts for cars, and drugs as well, and only incidentally in some Russian prostitutes that the mafia transported into Israel. In short, traffic as is found in most border areas of the Middle East, where state authority is often weak.
A hundred dollars for each meter dug
– – – – – – – – –
Since late in 2000, the situation has changed: Palestinian insurgents have used these tunnels for arms supplies. The IDF has begun to wage a merciless struggle against the digging of tunnels, not hesitating to raze neighborhoods that supposedly hide them. Palestinians are dead, buried under the sand, but others have continued to turn the earth. The Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005 and the assumption of control of the territory by Hamas in June 2007 have strengthened the smuggling of weapons, ranging from spare parts for Iranian or Chinese rockets, through anti-aircraft missiles, to tons of TNT and other explosives, which are essential for the detonation of missiles that Hamas fires on southern Israel.
“Until the Israeli withdrawal, the excavations were only at night. During the day, people were afraid of IDF patrols,” says Mohammed, a resident of Rafah, referring to trafficking of all kinds. The digging of the tunnels became the main economic activity of Rafah, and a mode of social redistribution, cleverly controlled by Hamas, with its rules, tariffs, and even its own vocabulary. “Whoever is digs is called the cutter, the owner is the snake head, and the milling machine for drilling, a rabbit,” says Mohammed.
A team of “cutters” receives an average of 100 dollars for each meter of tunnel dug. On the Egyptian side there are approximately 850 tunnel entrances, and 1,250 in Rafah in Palestinian houses along fourteen kilometers of the border. “The tunnels indeed appear to branch into two adits,” says Mohammed, highlighting the increasing sophistication of these galleries. In Egypt, the entries can be located both in houses and in the midst of fields of olive or almond trees. A French soldier remembers one of his visits to the Sinai, “I felt fresh air in the closet of a house, I asked where it came from, I was told, well, naturally, from a tunnel. By opening the closet, I discovered an open chimney inside plunging deep underground.” One descends using a basket driven by an electric winch. Certain tunnels are equipped with intercoms to communicate with the surface. To avoid detection equipment, the deepest are up to 30 meters underground. Their width, however, does not exceed “that of a man on all fours.” As for height, the “deluxe tunnel”, supported by a wooden frame, reaches the height of a man (1.70 m).
As the Israelis have destroyed many houses along the border, traffickers have responded by increasing the length of their tunnels. “Galleries extend up to 800 meters, within urban areas,” said the French soldier.
Since 2007, Hamas has had the upper hand in the trafficking, while allowing other “operators” and the payment of an annual tax of $10,000 for the right to drill a tunnel. The other Palestinian groups engaged in the fight against Israel are exempt from the toll, which does not prevent Hamas from monitoring their weapons supplies. And if a worker is killed by a cave-in, Hamas will demand that the owner of the tunnel pay the equivalent of €20,000 to his family.
Each month, Hamas pockets between 6 and 8 million euros in income. A lucrative traffic for a terrorist organization (on the list of terrorist organizations maintained by the European Union and the United States), and thus all but deprived of international subsidies to pay its thousands of staff who administer the Gaza Strip since the overthrow the Palestinian Authority by Islamists in 2007. That said, the diversion of international assistance for terrorist purposes is evident because the question is not whether it happens but when Hamas will end it and devote itself to the Palestinians who desperately need to live in peace.
Egyptian police corrupt
Behind Hamas, “the kings of the tunnels” are also large families in Rafah (El-Sha’er, Qishtah, Barhoum), whose members are scattered on both sides of the border since Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai in 1982. Later additions were Egyptian Bedouins who are “guarding” the entrances, naturally for a percentage (30%) of the take. But after the institution of the truce between Israel and Hamas in June, the residents of Rafah have seen other merchants: “large merchants in Gaza, whose businesses had collapsed with the embargo, arranged to buy a number of tunnels for between $100,000 and $120,000 each,” says Mohammed. By expanding the range of its beneficiaries, Hamas strengthens at the same time its network of obligations.
In Cairo, diplomats acknowledge that Egyptian security is fully aware of all types of smuggling, a veritable safety valve for a remote region, abandoned by the authorities. “The police sent from the Nile Valley to monitor the tunnels, these transplants that they send over there are not getting a major promotion,” a Western expert says with regret. Their desire to suppress the traffic is less than most “touches” of between $50 and $80 per month in exchange for their silence. It’s no wonder that in the Rafah desert other solidarities are created: “Just after being warned of the impending bombings against Israeli tunnels, the Egyptian police rushed to the border to warn us, shouting,” reported another resident of Rafah.
After much reluctance, the Egyptians have finally agreed to secure their border. How far can they go? Since last summer, after the visit of a delegation of American Congressmen, Cairo was determined to flood the entrances of a dozen tunnels. “Old passages out of use,” says Mohammed dismissively, “it was understood that it was simply to please the Americans.” Meanwhile, despite the hundreds of Israeli bombs dropped over the last fifteen days in Rafah, many tunnels remain operational. In recent days, two teams of Arab doctors have ventured illegally into the Swiss-cheese underworld of Rafah.
See the original article for videos of the Rafah tunneling operation.
Hat tip: AL.