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Analysis: Perfume, Viagra, lions and fuel - smuggling is Gaza's growth industry | Jerusalem Post

The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition

Analysis: Perfume, Viagra, lions and fuel - smuggling is Gaza's growth industry

(BOLD and Italics, added by The Master Blog)

Nov. 14, 2008
Khaled Abu Toameh , THE JERUSALEM POST

Sixteen months after assuming full control over the Gaza Strip, Hamas appears to be stronger than ever - largely thanks to the growing number of tunnels that are used to smuggle goods and weapons under the border with Egypt.

Israeli hopes that the embargo imposed on Gaza will eventually turn the impoverished Palestinians living there against the Hamas government seem unrealistic in light of the booming smuggling industry.

According to sources close to Hamas, the number of underground tunnels has risen in the past two years to nearly 1,000.

Once, Palestinian groups used the tunnels mainly to smuggle weapons into the Strip. But the tunnels have now become a vital tool in circumventing the Israeli commercial blockade of the district.

It's no wonder the tunnels are no longer a secret, and foreign journalists are being invited to visit them and interview their owners.

Hamas and its supporters have managed - through a carefully planned PR campaign - to market the smuggling tunnels as the only available means to prevent "starvation" in the Gaza Strip. Hamas leaders have even begun referring to them as "Tunnels of Life" because large supplies of food and medicine are being brought through them into Gaza on a daily basis.

The longer the blockade continues, the more sophisticated the tunnel-digging process becomes. Today, engineers and well-trained excavators supervise the digging of most of the tunnels, some of which are equipped with electricity and phone lines.

Some of the tunnels are said to have more than one opening on the Egyptian side so they can continue to function even after an entrance is discovered and closed by the Egyptian authorities.

Hamas representatives said Thursday that while the tunnels wouldn't solve the major problems of the Gaza Strip in the long term, they were proving to be an effective tool in countering the Israeli blockade.

When milk, flour and gas cylinders don't come from Israel, they are easily transferred through the many hundreds of tunnels. Who needs the Rafah border crossing to be reopened when one can get to Egypt via an underground tunnel? Who needs banks or Western Union when there can be subterranean transfers of cash?

When Israel decided earlier this year to temporarily suspend fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip in response to the rocket attacks on Israeli towns and cities, the smugglers installed underground pipes that continue to pump gasoline into the Gaza Strip. As a result, motorists there pay nearly half the price they were paying several months ago to fill their cars.

Underground smuggling has become one of the most profitable and sought-after professions in Gaza. Hundreds of unemployed laborers have joined the digging business, where monthly salaries range from NIS 2,500 to NIS 5,000. Most of the laborers used to work in Israel but lost their jobs because of the closure of the border crossings.

"Today there's less demand for weapons in the Gaza Strip," said a veteran Palestinian journalist who has been covering the tunnels story for over two decades. "Today people want to eat and buy cheap goods from Egypt. That's why they are smuggling everything, including sheep, calves, lions, cigarettes, perfume, electrical appliances, food and even tens of thousands of Viagra pills."

Both Israel and Egypt seem to have wearied of battling the underground tunnel trade. The two countries today realize that this is a cat-and-mouse game that needs to be dealt with on more than one front.

The major problem Israel and Egypt are facing is that there is no one in the Gaza Strip to restore law and order along the border. On the contrary, Hamas has long been involved in the smuggling business, and its members are said to control many of the tunnels in Rafah.

Once, the smuggling business was mostly run by influential clans and criminals. Today, it's an honor to be the owner of an underground tunnel, and many of the Gaza Strip's respected businessmen are said to be part of the industry.

The smugglers are boasting that they are actually performing "patriotic" deeds, since they are helping their people circumvent the Israeli embargo. Seventeen Palestinian diggers and smugglers who were killed when their tunnels collapsed in the past few months have been declared shahids (martyrs) by Hamas and their families.

This makes the Egyptians reluctant to take tough measures against the smugglers, fearing they will be accused by the Arab world of complicity in the "siege" against Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.

This article can also be read at:
Analysis: Perfume, Viagra, lions and fuel - smuggling is Gaza's growth industry | Jerusalem Post
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