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.

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.

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.

Ceasefire Proves Bad for Business

At the height of the embargo, prices quadrupled and, for a time, cement in Gaza cost 10 times as much as it did in Egypt. But now the cease-fire of June 19 has thwarted the smugglers' plans. For the past few weeks, about 90 trucks have been allowed to pass through the Israeli border crossings every day. Though only a fraction of the 400 trucks that made it through daily before the embargo, it was enough to cause prices to go down immediately in Rafah. Two weeks ago, a few dealers fired a homemade rocket in the direction of the Israeli city of Sderot, hoping that it would prompt the government in Jerusalem to seal off the borders again. "The ceasefire may be good for the people of Gaza, but not for us," says Abu Yakub.

The ceasefire has also been detrimental to Hamas, because the underground border traffic is one of its key revenue sources. The Islamists are believed to collect about $10,000 (€6,450) a day from the tunnel owners in the form of "usage fees," as well as "value-added taxes" -- all payable in cash to armed money collectors who wait at the tunnel exits. If a pack of cigarettes costs 74 cents in Egypt, it goes for €1.85 ($2.87) in Gaza, with half of the profits going to Hamas. And a lot of people smoke in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamists also control the distribution of gasoline. Anyone who wishes to buy gas must first buy an "insurance policy" from Hamas, for about €170 ($264), in return for a coupon that entitles its holder to buy 20 liters (5.3 gallons) once every two weeks -- even now, with Israel allowing 1 million liters (264,000 gallons) of fuel for cars into the Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, many residents still drive with a mixture of vegetable and used deep-frying grease. As a result, the Gaza Strip smells like a French-fry stand.

But for the Islamists, the issue is not just money, but justice and the question of whose justice. After the Hamas coup, Abbas called upon the judges in the Gaza Strip not to report to work. This prompted Hamas to take over the courts last November and appoint new judges amenable to their cause. Some people, however, would even like to see these courts abolished.

One of them, and perhaps the most influential, is Marwan Abu Ras, known as "Hamas' mufti." The organization's political leaders prefer not to be mentioned in the same breath with Abu Ras and describe him as "peculiar." But Gaza's top administrator, Ismail Haniya, and Mahmoud Zahar , one of the founders of Hamas, like to discuss religious matters with Abu Ras, who studied in Medina. The religious scholar wears a floor-length jalabiya robe, and his stomach is pressed against the edge of his desk, where a Koran rests on a mat made of red imitation crocodile leather. His bear and the Palestinian flags on his desk flutter in the breeze coming from his office fan. He looks more sleepy than dangerous, and yet it was no coincidence that a bomb also exploded in front of his house two Fridays ago. In his case, the attempted bombing was presumably an act of revenge by Fatah.

Disappointed by the Islamists

That's because it was a fatwah, or religious edict, issued by Abu Ras that cost about 100 Fatah members their lives during and after the four-day power struggle last year. "Anyone who has committed murder must also be punished with death," says the mufti. "Before Hamas came into power, there was a lot of crime here. Now we have restored order."

Order also means torture, even if this isn't exactly something Abu Ras is willing to admit. Palestinians who have fled to the West Bank report being nailed to the wall, confined in coffins or subjected to mock executions by Hamas. "We will take the best aspects of the Iranian and the Saudi Arabian system," says Abu Ras, stressing that women, of course, can continue to attend the university, go to the market and drive. "We aren't the Taliban, after all," he says.

The Islamists' influence is becoming more and more visible. Most men now wear full beards and many women are fully veiled. New minarets are being built throughout Gaza, alcohol is no longer available, and Hamas has restricted mixed dancing at weddings and extended religious study in schools. There have been arson attacks against Christian organizations and Internet cafés, and a few months ago radical Islamists even launched a grenade in front of the Hotel Deira, because it had been said that a waiter there had served whisky in espresso cups. The terrace at the Deira is a refuge for the bourgeoisie, and extended families spend their evenings playing rummy there.

Sharhabeel Zaeem comes to the Hotel Deira every day with his wife and their four children. He owns the largest law firm in Palestine, and until two years ago he advised international non-governmental organizations and Arab investors. But since the Hamas coup investment has stopped and lawsuits are no longer being filed. Now Zaeem, together with his wife, has completed the state examination in political science and is studying to earn a master's degree in law. "I have a lot of time now," he says.

Together with like-minded Palestinians, Zaeem is building a new party, the "Palestine Forum," which is supported by Munib Masri, a multimillionaire from Nablus. "We need at least another five years before we can take on Hamas." But he is hopeful, noting that many are already disappointed by the Islamists.

Although people are venturing out into the streets again at night, because there is a police officer at every corner, says Zaeem, this is about the extent of Hamas's achievements. "Hamas is in power, but it still thinks like an opposition party," he says. It ignores the garbage piling up in the streets, does nothing about repairing traffic lights, roads and water pipes and pays no attention to the children begging at intersections.

Hamas has even reneged on its most important promise: to fight corruption. "You can buy your way out of prison, and it's even cheaper than under Fatah," says a man who prefers to remain anonymous. A traffic policeman recently asked the man for a "donation to buy breakfast." But the corruption is emanating from the top rather than the bottom of Gaza's power structure.

Gaza's de facto leader Ismail Haniya, has gained 28 kilos (62 lbs) and set up his office in the former government guesthouse -- with an ocean view, of course. In addition to Haniya, the men in charge include Tahir Nunu, the Hamas spokesman, who likes to hold court at the Hotel Deira and present visitors with his nonstop smile, framed by a carefully trimmed beard. Anyone who listens to Nunu discovers that Hamas is willing to release the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, to form a unity government with Fatah, even to make peace.

Nunu smokes his water pipe. He can lean back and relax, because things are going well for Hamas. It has marginalized Fatah to such an extent that the desperate Abbas is even said to have threatened last week to dissolve the Autonomous Authority if Israel were to exchange prominent Hamas prisoners for Shalit. This is significant, because the release of Palestinians had until now consistently been considered a shared objective of all parties.

Nunu is the public face of Hamas. The other face of Hamas doesn't smile. It belongs to Ayman, a 26-year-old with an unkempt beard who dreams of becoming a martyr. "I will die sooner or later," he says. "It would be best to die in an attack on Israel." He shows a video clip on his mobile phone of him firing a Kalashnikov, then a photo of his daughter, who is only a few months old.

Ayman joined the Al-Aksa Brigades as a fighter six years ago, later becoming of member of Fatah's presidential guard. He defected to Hamas after the coup. Today he is a police officer by day and a member of the Qassam Brigades at night. He doesn't even have to change clothes from one job to the next. It's the same uniform for both.

Before the ceasefire, he transported rockets to the northern Gaza Strip and fired them from there. But now there is a ceasefire, and yet he still isn't any less busy. "On the contrary," he says, "we are training for the next major attack." This means spying on Israeli positions and depositing explosives near the border. Explosions are often heard these days, as Qassam fighters train for guerilla warfare. At the same time, Hamas is trying to reshape the brigades into an effective army with a clear chain of command, an army that, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, would be capable of resisting an Israeli invasion.

"We are disappointed, because Israel isn't opening up the borders completely, as promised. That's why we will soon end the ceasefire," says Ayman. He hopes that this will finally give him the chance to make his dream come true.

Abu Ibrahim, the tunnel king of Rafah, will also be pleased.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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