The View from Gaza Smugglers Get Tunnels Back in Operation

Israel wanted to destroy the tunnels used to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. But they failed to reach their objective: Gaza's tunnel diggers are already getting the underground passages back into order.

By and in the Gaza Strip


It's clean-up time in the southern Gaza Strip. In the Brazil refugee camp, right on the border with Egypt, the operators of the infamous tunnels used to smuggle goods and weapons in from Egypt have come to assess the damage caused by the Israeli bombardment. A woman sits and wails in front of a pile of rubble which once must have been a four or five-story house. Her husband and children carry debris on to the street.

"Sure, there was a tunnel which started in the basement of this house," says Hassan, 28, who is employed as a tunnel digger four houses further on. It took two months to construct the underground passage, which was finished in November of last year. A total of 13 men worked on the construction.

Before the Israeli offensive in Gaza started, a large proportion of the weapons being smuggled to Hamas came through the 200 to 400 tunnels along the 12-kilometer (7.5-mile) border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. It's true that the Israeli bombardment was massive, one of the tunnel diggers says, but only half the tunnels were destroyed at most.

"I am a mouse," says Hassan with a laugh. "I have spent half my life down there."

Hassan's boss stands in a shoddily built concrete shack on the border strip and screams down a deep black hole in front of him. "Mohammed! Hang the lamp on the rope and come up! I'll shine a light for you!" The tunnel is 26 meters (85 feet) deep and 330 meters (1,080 feet) long. The two vertical shafts are lined with wood, but not the tunnel itself. Each tunnel costs around $70,000 (€54,000) to build. This particular tunnel ends in a house on the Egyptian side of the border. The police there are aware of the secret passage, but they have done nothing about it.

At the moment the electricity in the tunnel is out, meaning no goods can be transported through it. The motors for the cranes and transport sled aren't working and neither are the ventilation and lighting.

A dim light can be seen wobbling in the depths of the hole -- Mohammed is coming up. Two minutes later, he is at the top of the wooden ladder. The sweat is running off his forehead and his red Lacoste shirt is wet. "Everything's okay," he gasps and lies down on the ground, breathing heavily. "A lot of sand has got in, it'll take us a while to shovel it all out. But I managed to get across to the other side. Our friends in Egypt send their regards."

Growing Anger

The Israeli bombs have left their mark everywhere. "That was the Rafah police headquarters," says our driver Hassan Abu Mohsen. "The Israelis bombed fairly precisely here in the south. In Gaza City, they hit a lot more houses." It's an impression which is confirmed during our journey through the outer neighborhoods. Whole rows of houses stand in darkness. In between, precisely destroyed individual buildings can be seen again and again. There is usually a green Hamas flag lying in tatters somewhere in the rubble.

Some neighborhoods have electricity for almost 20 hours a day, says one resident -- those are the areas in which more Hamas people live than elsewhere. The unequal distribution of luck and misfortune, wealth and poverty, is the dominant issue in the south of the Gaza Strip.

There is a general feeling of irritation against Hamas. It is discernible just in the fact that nobody wants to talk about them in the teahouses, on the sidewalk or in the supermarket. But when nobody is listening, a barrage of complaints gushes out.

It begins, as always, with the most basic things. "A cylinder of natural gas used to cost 45 shekels (€8.90) before Hamas took power," says Uday Sakariya, an unemployed engineer. "Nowadays it costs 120." The price of a liter of diesel has risen by four shekels to 15 shekels, a can of chickpea paste from two shekels to 3.50, he says. "This is no life anymore."

The anger is directed not only against the Israelis, who imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip after the Hamas coup against the rival Fatah movement in 2007, but increasingly against the radical Islamists themselves. "Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been sending flour, sugar and milk powder, but the government is not distributing it -- they sell it!"

In Damascus, Hamas leaders said on Syrian state television Sunday that Israel had seven days to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Shortly afterwards, the Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal spoke of a "divine victory."

Three people who are watching Mashaal's speech on television in a coffee shop in Khan Yunis in the south of Gaza react with anger. "This guy should give up politics and stick to selling sweet potatoes instead."

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