Sunday, November 25, 2012

An Egyptian Border Town’s Commerce, Conducted via Tunnels, Comes to a Halt

Refresher article re: tunnels

 RAFAH, Egypt — The Israeli warplanes flew loud and unhindered in the sunny winter sky, and there was the crashing crump of explosions in the near distance, in Gazan Rafah, only 100 yards away.

Hillal Ahmed looked up at the contrails of the jet. “The Israelis are there alone; Hamas has nothing up there,” he said. “But on the ground it’s different. They’re deep underground in cement tunnels just over there, 20 meters deep.”

Hamas is well armed and waiting for Israeli ground troops, insisted Mr. Ahmed, 35, who supports the group’s aspirations to rule the Palestinians and drive out the Israelis from all occupied land.

Rafah is divided between Egypt and Gaza, which Egypt once held, and which is now run by Hamas, the radical Islamic group Israel is trying to dislodge and destroy. Families like Mr. Ahmed’s live on both sides of the border, but the border has been closed tight, and families communicate by telephone.

The town, which the British used in 1917 as a base for their attack on Gaza, now lives on the smuggling of goods between Egypt and a closed Gaza, through hundreds of tunnels dug deep into the earth. The Israelis are bombing the tunnels day and night, in yet one more attempt to disrupt the passage of arms, explosives and cash into Hamas-run Gaza.
But for the people here, the tunnels are their livelihood, and a necessary lifeline into Gaza, which otherwise is dependent on Israel for nearly all its fuel and supplies.
“There is a state in the world with no heat, no gas, no oil, no diesel, no drugs, no food,” said Muhammad Ahmed, 33, angrily. “The Jews have everything, and they won’t understand that on the other side there is nothing!
“People dig the tunnels out of hunger,” he insisted, and then warned, “When you don’t feed animals, they get angry and they bite you!”
Both Ahmeds are businessmen; they, too, have tunnels, through which they ship consumer goods like cigarettes and snacks, like the popular Egyptian potato chips called Chipsy and Crunchy, as well as larger products like generators, televisions and washing machines.
“It’s the No. 1 economy here,” Hillal Ahmed said. “Dollars, pounds, shekels, it all comes from the tunnels.” He laughed and opened his wallet. “We work for dollars,” he said, showing four neatly folded $100 bills.
But with the Israeli bombing, and, unspoken, the heavy Egyptian police and military presence that the crisis has meant for the town, the tunnel trade has stopped for now, the residents said. “Nothing is going in now,” said Nader Sayed, 28. “It’s impossible now.”
Hamas, the residents said, controls other tunnels, conduits for guns, cement, explosives and fertilizers for explosives.
Muhammad al-Zarb said that the Israelis somehow seemed to know which tunnels were commercial and which were run by Hamas, and that they seemed to be selective in their bombing. “If someone has a tunnel for Chipsy, it seems O.K.,” he said. “When a Hamas guy has a tunnel for weapons, they bomb it.”
There is widespread fear for family members on the other side and anger at Israel, with little patience for the Israeli argument that Hamas is an existential threat to the state or much of a threat to its citizens. “Hamas has no planes,” Muhammad Ahmed said. “What is a Hamas rocket compared to an Israeli bomb?”
Hamas will not be destroyed, Hillal Ahmed said. “Hamas is legitimate and will not surrender,” he said. “Even if they raze the place they will not surrender.”
With the new escalation, there is further pressure on Egypt to open the border and help the Palestinians of Gaza, and not merely, as now, to provide humanitarian supplies and to take some of the most badly wounded to Egyptian hospitals. The area has now been declared a military zone, and the small town is crowded with soldiers, police officers and security officers in plain clothes.
They want to prevent demonstrations on this side, or efforts to breach the border from either side, by journalists or by desperate Gazans, as happened a year ago, and they are extremely sensitive to what is seen and written about the town.
Interviews with residents were interrupted by plainclothes officers of the Mukhabarat, or security police, who took this reporter and his interpreter in for questioning. The treatment was polite but firm, with warnings to stay away from Rafah for safety reasons, and after questioning and the copying of identification documents, the reporter and interpreter were left to depart.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting.

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