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Defiant Smugglers Ply Egypt-Gaza Border In Tunnels

A Palestinian man uses a phone on April 11 to communicate with others from a tunnel that runs under the border between the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah and Egypt.
Said Khatib
AFP/Getty Images
A Palestinian man uses a phone on April 11 to communicate with others from a tunnel that runs under the border between the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah and Egypt.

Egypt is taking a more aggressive role in stopping the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip destined for Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the territory.

The Egyptian border has long been a smuggling route in a multimillion-dollar business trade of food, goods, arms and rocket parts through desert tunnels.

Near the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border, Egyptian police are visible on every street corner. Green military vans that ferry security personnel are parked along the dusty roads.

The wind kicks up sand as Abu Talib, an Egyptian Bedouin who lives in a small concrete house with his wife and eight children, explains how things have changed for smugglers since the Israeli army offensive in Gaza.

The 23-day air and ground campaign in December and January sought to demolish the smugglers' tunnels and stop Hamas rocket fire on southern Israeli communities. When it ended, Israeli military officials said that over 80 percent of the tunnels were destroyed.

Smuggling A Way Of Life On The Border

Now that Egypt has tightened security, Abu Talib says many smugglers are out of the business and many tunnels were shut down.

"After the war, Israel complained about the stuff going through. They [Egypt] increased the security, not necessarily changed, just increased, and there is nothing going through now," he says.

Life is hard here, he says. Abu Talib makes a small living from odd jobs with a truck he owns. His daughter, Hyah, says the Egyptian government offers no help, so many Bedouins become smugglers, for the money.

"For some it's a matter of bread and butter, but for those who have a lot of money already — that's when they have the ability to say, 'Oh, I'm helping the Palestinians, too,' " she says.

Matthew Levitt, a security expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the stepped-up Egyptian security presence is in the government's interest.

"Egyptians have been doing much more than they had been, whether it's rotating senior officials in and out of the area to reduce the opportunity for bribery, shutting down a lot more tunnels, trying to do things farther into Sinai," he says. "But this is something that is in the Egyptian national interest. And I think they see it that way."

Egypt Sees Iranian Threat On Gaza Border

When it comes to Gaza, Egypt's national interest has been tested more by Iran than by Israel, Levitt says.

In April, the Egyptian government announced it had rounded-up a weapons smuggling cell organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which receives support from Iran.

Cairo accused the arrested men of plotting to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in a conspiracy backed by Iran. Egypt has been aggressive in challenging Iran's rising influence in the region. This is one factor in Egypt's vigilance on the border, Levitt says, "as highlighted by the Hezbollah cell that was rounded up [and] engaged in operations both supporting and arming Hamas in the Gaza Strip and, according to the Egyptians, maybe even plotting attacks in Egypt."

But the government's accusations of an Iranian conspiracy have done little to dampen Egyptian sympathies for Palestinians in Gaza.

Across Egypt, there is frustration with the government's insistence on keeping the border with Gaza closed. Egyptians support the illegal tunnel trade, the only delivery system for Palestinians in Gaza still struggling to recover from the devastating Israeli military campaign.

Main Trade In Tunnels Is Food, Not Arms

"The Egyptians are not able to stop the smuggling entirely, not able or willing, because as long as the current situation in Gaza stands with the blockade, the tunnels are a necessary lifeline," says Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst and writer.

Food, not weapons, is the main product flowing through the tunnels, says Marc Lynch, an Egyptian specialist at American University in Washington, D.C.

But that poses a problem for the Egyptian government, he says.

"For them, it's not an open-or-closed problem; it's a filtering problem. They need to figure out a way to let the essential foodstuffs in without having bullets smuggled in in a barrel of eggplants. That's hard to do," Lynch says.

Tunnels have been long used for smuggling along the Gaza border, especially after 1967, when Israel captured the territory. In the 1990s, under Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements, Palestinians in parts of Gaza and the West Bank were granted limited autonomy.

Hamas took control of the enclave and routed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' security forces in June 2007, leading to a tight blockade of Gaza by Israel and increased rocket attacks on southern Israel by Hamas.

Now, Egyptian security has been increased in the Sinai town of El Arish, near the Gaza border, says Abu Mohammed, who runs a well-stocked grocery store. Tunnel traffic is down, but not completely shut, he acknowledges.

As long as there is a need in Gaza, the smugglers will continue to dig deep into the Sinai desert and cross the border in tunnels, he says.

"We get phone calls from Palestinians on the other side," he says. "We know when everything gets there."

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