Alfred de Montesquiou / Associated Press – 2009-01-23 23:04:46
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (January 23, 2009) — 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 UN 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-size sacks of goods. Abu Wahda said the 3-foot-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, according to a count by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.
The Israeli military said it destroyed 60 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, said 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. A smuggler named 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 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.
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