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Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Gaza Tunnel Smugglers Grow Under Hamas

Gaza Tunnel Smugglers Grow Under Hamas
By KEVIN FRAYER Associated Press Writer Tuesday August 14, 2007 7:01 PM

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) - Gazans are finding an antidote to their growing
isolation: digging tunnels under their border with Egypt to smuggle
everything from weapons to cigarettes to people.

A group of smugglers recently gave an Associated Press photographer rare
permission to accompany them as they dug one tunnel. In underground darkness
with stifling heat and limited air supply, the diggers painstakingly removed
sand and rubble as they crawled through cramped spaces carrying portable
lamps and homemade tools.

The southern Gaza town of Rafah has long been a key conduit for underground
weapons-smuggling - mostly controlled by a handful of local clans. With
Israel imposing a strict closure of Gaza's borders in the wake of Hamas
militants' violent seizure of the coastal territory in June, more and more
smugglers are taking a piece of the action.

The stakes are higher than ever. Smugglers find themselves pursued by
Israel, which fears militants' growing arsenal; by Egypt, which is under
growing pressure to crack down on tunnel diggers; and by Hamas, which does
not oppose tunnels but wants to control them.

The diggers, who refused to give their names and wore masks to shield their
identities, said today's tunnels must be deeper and longer than ever before
to avoid detection. The tunnels often take weeks or months to dig, and the
tunnelers sleep where they work to avoid getting caught.

Tunnelers smuggle machine guns, rifles, ammunition, explosive devices,
grenade launchers and other munitions. Cigarettes, drugs, gold, automobile
parts and
people also move through the shafts.

The AP was not allowed to see what goods were moving through the tunnel.

Some are only wide enough to carry in contraband no larger than a rifle,
pulled through with a rope. Others, such as the one seen by AP, are big
enough for a person. Still, once inside there's not enough room to turn
around, so every 100 yards or so, a wider space is bored to enable a change
of direction.

Israel estimates there are dozens of tunnels. They range in length from 100
yards to a half-mile. They begin and end in unlikely places: under the floor
tiles of kitchens, inside bedroom closets or animal pens, in the nooks of
abandoned buildings. People who allow their dwellings to be used for tunnels
are paid.
Runners said it is now most profitable to smuggle in goods such as
cigarettes rather than weapons because Hamas has prohibited ordinary
citizens and rival militants from carrying arms.

``After they (Hamas) took over and started controlling who can have weapons,
nobody wants them any more. So why should we bring them in?'' said one

Other tunnels, however, are squarely in Hamas' hands - and Israeli officials
say arms smuggling by the militant group is going strong.

Smuggling has a long history in the area. Egypt once used a camel corps to
intercept aboveground Bedouin caravans, but for years now has relied on
vehicle patrols. During Israel's withdrawal from Sinai, smugglers buried
Mercedes and other vehicles in the desert sand so they could retrieve and
sell them after Israel withdrew from the territory, without having to pay
Egyptian taxes.

Gaza's tunnels are a major frustration for Israel, which has carried out
dozens of raids to destroy them, often killing both militants and civilians.

``The Hamas terror organization continues to busy itself with the smuggling
of huge quantities of weapons for use against Israel. These tunnels continue
to be the main source of the weapons supplies to Palestinian terrorists,''
said Israeli government spokesman David Baker.

Tunnelers said Hamas has been trying to take over existing tunnels for its
own smuggling - showing little tolerance for freelance runners.

In an interview, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum denied the existence of
tunnels in Gaza.

``Israel is claiming there are tunnels just to spoil the relationship
between us and our brothers in Egypt,'' he said.

Smuggling a person through a tunnel can cost up to $10,000, depending on
their importance or whether they are wanted by Israel, the smugglers said.
Runners say the process of bringing a person from Egypt involves intricate
planning and coordination with the other side.

``He's handed to someone there. He stays over at that person's place, and
then we bring him in at night at an agreed time,'' said a smuggler.

Depending on the length, width and sophistication of any given tunnel, they
can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $200,000 to build. That cost is the biggest
incentive for smugglers to move as much contraband as possible. Profits,
too, can be high, with more than a few Gaza millionaires created by

One tunneler said the shaft he was digging would take four months to
complete and that he expected to earn $12,000 for his efforts - a fortune in
impoverished Gaza.

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