Thursday, October 16, 2008

Owners of the scores of tunnels running under the Gaza-Egypt border have registered with the Hamas authorities, pledged to pay workers’ compensation and hooked up their operations to the electricity network.

The once clandestine business has come out into the open. In one place, dozens of large tents, each marking a tunnel work site, were pitched just yards from an Egyptian watchtower beyond the border wall.

With the Gaza Strip’s borders virtually sealed by Israel and Egypt for the past 16 months, the tunnels - some 200, by conservative estimate - are among the territory’s main lifelines and are seen as vital for keeping the Islamic militant Hamas in power.

“The tunnels have become the main source of commodities in Gaza, and every day the closure continues, the importance of the tunnels increases as well,” said Gaza economist Omar Shaaban.

The underground imports — from refrigerators, food and clothes to fuel and anti-tank rockets — help to keep Gaza’s economy afloat. But Israel says they are also building up Hamas’ arsenal.

Opposition legislator Yuval Steinitz, citing Israeli intelligence briefings, said the tunnels have enabled Hamas to arm and equip 20,000 to 30,000 fighters since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

Under U.S. pressure, Egypt has been trying harder to clamp down. Egypt says it has destroyed scores of tunnels since Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in June 2007 and has stepped up the pace after getting $28 million of U.S. detection equipment four months ago.

Israel has long complained that Egypt is ignoring the smuggling. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Aviv Shiron praised the latest Egyptian effort, but added that “much more has to be done.”

He said the influx of weapons into Gaza endangers not only Israel, but the entire region.

The growth of a jihadist army on Israel’s doorstep could also weaken support in Israel for a pullout from the West Bank, as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians. In any case, an agreement would likely not be implemented as long as Hamas rules Gaza.

Palestinian smugglers say Egypt’s demolitions disrupt business, but tunnels, about 200, according to conservative estimates, can quickly be reopened.

After seizing power, Hamas initially shut down some tunnels, in part to prevent its political foes from fleeing. However, since then it has largely allowed smugglers to operate, and in recent months has stepped up its supervision.

“We are watching what is coming through and we prevent the entry of weapons and drugs,” said spokesman Ehab Ghussen, spokesman for Gaza’s Interior Ministry, adding that the tunnel trade would be halted if borders are reopened.

Egypt is aware of the Hamas involvement but so far has not made it a central issue in its contacts with the Gaza rulers. It denies claims that Egyptian officials are involved in the smuggling.

The tunneling dates to the 1980s, when Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt, and intensified after Hamas seized power in 2007, provoking Israel and Egypt to cut the Gaza Strip off from the outside world. Smugglers increasingly brought in consumer goods, along with weapons, and now work openly, as a recent visit to one site demonstrated.

Motorized pulleys hummed, trucks rumbled across the bumpy terrain to pick up merchandise coming from Egypt, and foreman Abu Nafez took a visitor inside one of the tents to show a vertical shaft that went down 35 feet, then headed half a mile southwest, under the border and into Egypt.

Abu Nafez, a 33-year-old former cabdriver who declined to give his full name, said he now earns enough to feed his seven children and even save money, although his knees are swollen from crawling in cold, damp soil.

Hamas inspectors are notified of each delivery and check it on-site, he said.

Tunnels, dug with electrical drills, are just high enough to enable workers to move on all fours.

Abu Nafez said his tunnel was dug a little over a year ago. Eventually, he said, the owner was told he had to obtain a permit from the municipality of Rafah, the nearest Gaza town. The owner complied, and the tunnel now receives power from the local electricity company, which even installed a meter.

Municipal officials confirmed they supervise tunnel operations.

Forty-five tunnel workers have been killed this year in accidents or in Egyptian anti-smuggling operations, so last month Hamas summoned owners and ordered them “to take action to protect their employees,” according to Mr. Ghussen of the Interior Ministry.

Participants in the meeting said owners were asked to sign a promise to pay the Islamic “diyeh,” or blood money, to the family of each worker killed.

Thousands of Palestinians live off the tunnels, from the diggers to shop owners selling the smuggled merchandise, and profits are huge.

Near the border area, Ashraf Hamed, 31, sells tunnel digging supplies such as wheelbarrows, shovels, buckets and ropes because the closure dried up his traditional business in building materials. “If it wasn’t for the tunnels, I would have closed,” he said.

Nabil Ajaideh is a former policeman who used to chase tunnel diggers before Hamas came to power. Now he’s a customer, having just had a $1,500 motorcycle delivered, in pieces, through a tunnel.

“It’s an alternative,” he explained. “We are forced to do it because the borders are closed.”

• Associated Press writers Salah Nasrawi in Cairo and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report

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