Ausgabe 32/2008

Gaza's Lifelines Tunnels to Egypt Keep Hamas in Business

One year after assuming total power over the Gaza Strip, Hamas is stronger then ever. Its weapons caches are overflowing and its control over daily life is secure. The Islamists can go about their business largely thanks to the supplies that get in via the tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt.

By Juliane von Mittelstaedt

A Palestinian working at a tunnel to receive goods from Egypt in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip.

A Palestinian working at a tunnel to receive goods from Egypt in the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip.

The king of the tunnel builders had given a dazzling party, with roses from Egypt and dancing into the early morning hours. Thousands of people came to the event to celebrate his wedding to his 15-year-old bride. He had chosen the girl, and her family gave her up gladly, because no one contradicts the man they call Abu Ibrahim.

He is the richest man in Rafah and is believed to be worth millions. He drives a gold-colored Jeep and has built a multistory commercial building, the only structure of its kind far and wide. He already has one wife and 10 children, and now he has this second wife, for whom he had a wedding bed, a refrigerator and two television sets brought in from Egypt through the tunnels.

Abu Ibrahim, 38, has Hamas to thank for his wealth, and Hamas owes its power in the Gaza Strip to Abu Ibrahim. A quarter century ago he dug his first tunnel under the border to Egypt. He was 13 years old at the time and one of the first to venture into the underworld of Rafah. At first he smuggled gold, cheese and cigarettes, but after the beginning of the second Intifada in 2000 his business shifted mainly to weapons. It was Ibrahim who helped arm the Islamists and provided them with the Kalashnikovs, ammunition and explosives they have used since assuming power in June of last year.

Although Hamas won a military victory over its rival, Fatah, on June 14, 2007, a second, silent civil war for lasting control over the Gaza Strip continues today, a year later. It is a conflict over who will determine law and order in the future, over bureaucracy and militias, and over who will collect taxes and who will be permitted to fire rockets at Israel.

When five Hamas members were killed in a bomb attack in front of a beach café two Fridays ago, the Hamas leadership immediately blamed the attack on its rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement. But it is also possible that the bombing was committed by elements from within Hamas's own ranks or one of its militias. The radical Islamist organization has been splintered into various factions for some time.

Lifelines for Gaza

Hamas used the bombing as an excuse to conduct its biggest series of raids since assuming power, arresting 200 supposed activists with the rival Fatah movement, searching organizations affiliated with it and banning three newspapers. In response, the Fatah-led government in the West Bank arrested 150 Hamas members. Hundreds of Fatah members have since fled to Israel and earlier this week many of them were subsequently transferred to the West Bank.

The two unconnected parts of a future Palestine are drifting apart like separating continental plates. Meanwhile, the new masters of Gaza are continually expanding their control over the narrow Mediterranean coastal strip, and their most important helpers are the tunnel people of Rafah.

Tough neighborhood: Israel and its neighbors.

Tough neighborhood: Israel and its neighbors.

According to the Israeli domestic intelligence agency, 175 tons of explosives have been smuggled into the region since June 2007, along with 10 million rounds of ammunition, tens of thousands of machine guns, grenades, land mines and precision-guided missiles. The Islamists are now believed to have turned to smuggling weapons through their own cement-reinforced tunnels, which now include ventilation systems and a water supply. But more than weapons are passing through these tunnels.

Since Israel classified the Gaza Strip as "enemy territory" and sealed its borders, 95 percent of businesses have been forced to close and 70,000 workers and about 40,000 farmers have become unemployed. This has helped turn the tunnels into lifelines for Gaza's 1.5 million residents. From clothing to Coca-Cola to cement, almost all goods reach this coastal strip underground.

Five thousand people work in the tunnels, of which there are now believed to be about 150 -- up from 15 a year ago. By now, anyone who can afford a few shovels, a generator and an electric winch is digging new tunnels, and there are deaths almost weekly, because the tunnels are poorly reinforced or because the Egyptians have blown them up.

A Game of Cat and Mouse

The new gold diggers of Rafah have staked their claims directly in the sand on one side of the border, and land prices here are higher than anywhere else in the Gaza Strip. The tunnels begin in huts made of wooden slats, surrounded by plants barely masquerading as gardens. The shafts are 10 meters (33 feet) deep, and at the bottom of each shaft a passageway leads to the southwest. The tunnels are 60 centimeters (2 feet) wide and one meter (3.3 feet) tall, and extend for up to one kilometer (0.6 miles). Sometimes up to four tunnels are crowded into the same vertical space, separated only by planks.

Each tunnel has several exits on the Egyptian side, so that when one is discovered and destroyed, another one can be opened. It is a cat-and-mouse game, but one in which the Egyptians are reluctant to pursue the smugglers. The Israelis, for their part, claim that no one knows exactly where the tunnels are and that they are not keen on bombing civilians. But according to Abu Yakub, "it's fine with the Israelis for Hamas to remain strong in Gaza, because it means that no one forces them to seriously negotiate a peace plan."

Abu Yakub is the assistant of weapons smuggler Abu Ibrahim, who now fears for his life and prefers to remain hidden. The two men went into the underworld together as children, and although Abu Yakub never became as wealthy as his friend, he has managed to earn enough to afford an attractive villa. And what if the tunnels were closed tomorrow? Abu Yakub claps his hands, and says: "Well, then I'll just stop working."

But now he squats next to a new shaft, where his men are in the process of digging a new tunnel. They are only 200 meters (656 feet) from their goal. Using satellite images from Google Earth, they install power cables, oxygen tubes and intercom systems underground. It takes six months and costs $40,000 (€26,000) to build such a tunnel, and those who are discovered will lose everything. Those who succeed, on the other hand, can make a fortune.


© DER SPIEGEL 32/2008
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Reproduction only allowed with permission

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