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Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Sunday Times Magazine feature story on Gaza tunnels

The Sunday Times Magazine

July 17, 2005


Into the underworld

Exclusive: Beneath the Israeli-Egyptian border is a secret world: a network
of narrow tunnels, through which Palestinians smuggle weapons - and even
wives - into the Gaza Strip. But these 'snake holes' also carry the risk of
disaster and death. Marie Colvin enters the subterranean labyrinth

Nadr Keshta was 18 ..turned to the only paying job in Rafah: digging tunnels
under the Israeli-Egyptian border. I had heard rumours of tunnels for years,
but never really believed them, because there is nothing but white sand that
runs through your fingers. How could you have a tunnel network in this
flimsy sand? My scepticism was buttressed by knowledge of Israel's defences:
the army has erected an 8ft wall that plunges invisibly many more feet
underground along the Rafah side of the Philadelphi road - a dirt stretch
patrolled by armoured Israeli Jeeps that parallels the Egyptian border - to
stop tunnellers. Then there are explosions every night in Rafah, set off
arbitrarily by Israeli engineers in the hope that they might collapse an
undiscovered tunnel.

But a chance conversation resulted in my living in Rafah for a week with the
"tunnel people". It was like discovering a lost tribe in a city I had been
visiting for 15 years. I found an extraordinary, secret tunnel culture known
only to a few Palestinians. The tunnel people told me they originally
smuggled in contraband drugs, women, cigarettes (5 shekels in Egypt, 12
shekels in Gaza), and even the python that still slithers around in the
Rafah zoo, and the ostrich that escaped during the May 2004 Israeli
incursion, to the great glee of Rafah kids, who rode bareback on the big
bird until the zookeepers recaptured him. Since the second intifada began
five years ago, however, the tunnellers have mostly smuggled weapons.

The profits are huge. A Kalashnikov sells for $200 on the Egyptian side, but
fetches $2,000 on the Gaza black market. A good night's delivery is 1,200
Kalashnikovs - a profit of more than $2m. Bullets - 50 cents in Egypt, $8
wholesale in Gaza - are even more profitable. A standard one-night delivery
returns a profit of $750,000. The tunnels are financed by wealthy families -
locals call them the "snakeheads" - who run the tunnels as businesses. They
rent the passage to anyone who pays $10,000 for one night's use - a gun
dealer, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the militant Islamic fundamentalist groups,
or a man who can't get his wife legally into Gaza. Cash is the currency, not
politics, patriotism or sentimentality.

They rent, build or buy a house, even an entire farm, just to disguise a
tunnel's "eye", as they call the entrance. The gun dealers are their biggest
clients. "We call them blood dealers," said Abu Sibah, 36, the bearded head
of a rogue Palestinian militia in Al-Bureij refugee camp north of Rafah,
outside a car mechanics' shop where he had stored his latest shipment of
Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). "But there is nothing to
do about them. We depend on the tunnels for guns." He was particularly proud
of the shiny black Belgian revolver in his belt - at $3,000, a special
order. It was to this world that Nadr Keshta turned for the money to marry.

...In Ibrahim's neighbourhood alone, locals reckon there are about 20
tunnels in various stages of destruction or excavation. Down the street from
Ibrahim's ruin is the rubble of a house destroyed because the owner had
financed one of the most famous tunnels in Rafah: the one commissioned by
Yasser Arafat, then president of the Palestinian Authority, to smuggle in 50
tonnes of weapons from Iran aboard the freighter Karine A, which the
Israelis captured in the Red Sea. Arafat denied any connection, but the
trace was clear: the PA had commissioned the $100m cargo of rockets,
missiles, mortars and sniper rifles. When I went to the site of the
destroyed house, a white baby donkey lay basking in the sand at the foot of
all that was left: a mound of dirt and concrete slabs. After my visit, the
PA found the "eye" of another tunnel dug to connect to the main one - right
underneath where the baby donkey had been tethered by a rope invisible to
the casual observer.

...Ayed's experience on the Egyptian side - punching out the other "eye" -
gives an incredible insight into how this strange underworld connects to a
larger network of international arms dealers. Over the years he has been
working, he has seen the provenance and quality of weapons change. Guns used
to come from Egypt and Yemen; now the great bulk come from Darfur in Sudan,
where civil war is raging. The dealers have migrated there and sell weapons
by the tonne to the Bedouin who live on the mountainous border and are
subject to no law. The Sudan connection is well known in Gaza, but Israel's
military intelligence, usually among the best-informed in the world, still
lists Egypt and Yemen as the main provenances for the guns used against

Ayed told an extraordinary tale of the time he was stranded in Egypt. As
tunnel boss, he was responsible for the diggers, all relatives of the tunnel
patron, so he could not leave them behind without risking a blood feud. When
they punched through on the tunnel into the Egyptian side, the army had been
tipped off and started firing. Ayed got everyone and the shipment down into
the tunnel but was too late to escape himself. He fled with the Bedouin
suppliers into the mountains, then watched them take delivery of tonnes of
weapons from dealers in Darfur. "I stayed with the Bedouin for 12 days until
I found a tunnel to go back to Rafah," Ayed said. "In the mountains, the
Bedouin are heavily armed; they even have anti-aircraft weapons. The
Egyptian army can't go there." Abu Sihab, of the rogue militia in Al-Bureij,
says: "The good guns we are getting now are from Darfur. The bullets from
Darfur are shit - I always check them and they are bad."


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