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MID: Gaza tunnels back in business

By Alfred De Montesquiou
23 Jan 2009 1:56 AM

RAFAH, Gaza Strip, Jan 22 AP - Gaza smugglers were actively working at their tunnels on Thursday, bringing in food, fuel and other goods barely four days after Israel stopped dumping hundreds of tons of missiles and bombs on Gaza's southern border with Egypt.

The renewed smuggling underscored how difficult it could be for the Israeli military to meet one of the key goals of its three-week offensive: preventing Hamas militants from bringing weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.

Some 1,285 Palestinians, most of them civilians, died in the Israeli operation, launched Dec. 27 to end Hamas' rocket fire on southern Israel and to cut the group's suspected arms route from Iran.

The military said it had destroyed 60 to 70 per cent of the tunnels before Israel declared a ceasefire on Saturday. The smugglers in Rafah, a southern Gaza border town where nearly all smuggling tunnels are dug, told The Associated Press that the destruction was probably even higher.

"I'd say that only one out of 10 tunnels is still intact," said Abu Rahman, a tunnel manager who asked to be identified by his nickname because of his smuggling activities.

He and other smugglers estimated there were about 1,000 tunnels functioning in Rafah before Israel's offensive. Most were dug after Israel sealed off Gaza from the outside world following Hamas' takeover in June 2007.

While some tunnels were used to bring in weapons, many were used to circumvent the Israeli blockade and get basic goods into Gaza. The tunnels, about 15 metres deep and 1.5 metres high, run several hundred metres underneath the border.

Abu Rahman's own tunnel was quite seriously damaged, and 10 workers were shovelling underground to get it working again. "It should take about a month, we're going about as fast as we can," he said.

With so many tunnels out of service, the laws of supply and demand have driven prices up, Abu Rahman said. Sacks of goods like potato chips, clothes or cigarettes that transferred for $40 each before the offensive could now go for as much as $400, he said.

Abu Wahda, another smuggler, said he'd been lucky. "I fixed the damage in three days, we're functional since this morning," he said, overseeing the winch that hurled a large pack of potato chips 15 metres up from his tunnel.

While both traffickers insisted they'd never considered bringing weapons for Hamas, Abu Bilal, another colleague repairing his own tunnel, said he wouldn't mind doing so. "But frankly, the resistance never asks us to," he said. "I think they've got their own tunnels and don't want to pay us," he said.

As the men spoke, hundreds of workers could been seen near the no-man's land with Egypt, busy fixing dozens of tunnels dug under the shade of tents or fake greenhouses.

The buzz of generators filled the air, and one restaurant owner who'd reopened his snack bar amid the digging said he expected at least 200 patrons on Thursday.

Clamping down on Hamas' smuggling was a key Israel demand to end its offensive. It says it got guarantees from Egypt, and pledges from the US and Europe, to help prevent Hamas from rearming.

"Israel had no illusions whatsoever that the Hamas would voluntarily be giving up on the tunnelling," said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. "We do believe, however, that the new situation that has been created will prevent Hamas from successfully replenishing its stores of Iranian missiles," he said.