Ashraf Khalil
The Los Angeles Times
February 16, 2009 - 1:00am,0,22...

Reporting from Rafah, Gaza Strip -- The tunnel owners sit around the fire, passing cups of sweet tea and talking bitterly about the siege.

But on this early February morning they're not talking about the Israeli jets and their occasional airstrikes on the hundreds of tunnels that worm their way from Egypt into the Gaza Strip, slipping in supplies and, some say, weapons.

Instead, the Palestinians' fury is directed at the Egyptian government, which in the wake of this winter's Israeli offensive has cracked down on the Gaza tunnel trade, choking the flow of goods.

"No matter what the Israelis do, we're steadfast," one owner, who identifies himself as Abu Ahmed, says as he sits in an outdoor courtyard within sight of the border. "But this? This could slaughter our country and our economy."

Under pressure from the United States and Israel, Egypt is imposing stronger checkpoints throughout the Sinai peninsula to prevent merchandise from reaching the tunnel zone. Here on the border in Rafah, there's talk of police using informants to find hidden entrances and destroy dozens of tunnels with explosives or huge water hoses.

"They seem to be taking it seriously this time," says Musab Shurrab, a police officer stationed within yards of the border wall.

An army of tunnel diggers went back to work immediately after Israel ended its three-week offensive in Gaza on Jan. 18. They vowed to repair damaged routes and continue subverting Israeli and Egyptian control over the Palestinian territory's borders.

Tunnel traffic resumed for about a week, with a new wave of goods appearing in Gaza's depleted markets.

Then, the owners say, something changed.

Having fended off calls for an international troop presence on the border, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak apparently set out to prove that Egypt was capable of controlling its own borders.

In the last week of January, extra security forces began appearing on the Egyptian side of the wall, along with shiny new security cameras pointed across the border. Now the heads of several Egyptian soldiers are visible on the roof of a deserted three-story apartment building just across the border. The low rooftop wall has been raised and fortified with layers of cinder block.

"It's the first time they've acted like this," Shurrab says.

But even more disturbing, he says, is when the soldiers suddenly disappear. Everybody panics, fearing that the Egyptians have been warned about an impending Israeli airstrike.

There are signs that the Egyptians are succeeding -- for now, at least -- where the Israeli air force failed.

Abu Khalil is part owner of a tunnel specializing in transporting gasoline. He boasts that his tunnel never stopped working during the Israeli siege, bringing in as much as 21,000 gallons a day.

But now, Abu Khalil says, he is facing a "new Pharaonic siege."

"Since 9 p.m. last night, not a drop has come through," he says.

A few crews are working their tunnels amid the familiar growl of generators. Most say they are repairing damage. But the activity is a fraction of what it was two weeks earlier.

There also is a new atmosphere of caution. In the first days after the cease-fire, tunnel operators proudly welcomed journalists and TV crews to show off their underground creations. They are more subdued now, speaking freely but avoiding all picture taking. A Hamas police officer warns against photographing any goods coming out of the tunnels.

Gaza's tunnel industry boom started in 2007 when Hamas routed the rival Fatah faction and took full control of the territory. Israel and Egypt strongly tightened their existing restrictions on Gaza's borders.

Hamas essentially licensed the tunnels, declaring them a legitimate part of the economy and taxing the profits.

Egyptian authorities often turned a blind eye, viewing the tunnels as a safety valve that prevented living conditions in Gaza from becoming too desperate.

But Israel has made ending the tunnel trade a priority, accusing Hamas of using it to bring in long-range rockets from Iran. The tunnel owners deny that they smuggle weapons, saying rockets pass through secret Hamas-run tunnels that are deeper and more fortified and extend much farther across the border.

"Think about it. The weapons tunnels aren't these guys out in the open here," an owner named Abu Baraa says, pointing to the diggers around him. "I bring through potato chips, Cadbury bars and Pampers."

Abu Baraa, a former day laborer in Israel, says he and several partners invested a total of $100,000 to open their tunnel just weeks before the Israeli offensive began. Most of the tunnel owners were forced into the trade by the sanctions-induced collapse of the Gazan economy, he says.

"If there was another way to make a living, I'd do it. It becomes a choice between life or death."

Abu Baraa and other owners say they hope the current crackdown is just a temporary show by the Egyptians to satisfy international demands. They angrily warn that a serious long-term anti-tunnel effort would be a betrayal by Mubarak's government and risk a dangerous backlash.

"The Egyptian people are our brothers," Abu Baraa says. "The government is a collaborator."


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