Sat, Jan 24, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Gaza tunnels back in business after Israeli airstrikes

AP , RAFAH, GAZA STRIP

After repairing their tunnel on Thursday, workers for Abu Wahda the smuggler were hoisting loads of prized cargo out of the narrow shaft: potato chips, a minor luxury for Gazans tired of bland UN humanitarian rations.

All around, smuggling crews were busy getting merchandise flowing again through dozens of similar tunnels only days after a ceasefire in Israel’s devastating Gaza offensive.

The air reeked from spills of newly smuggled fuel being poured in to plastic barrels as winches powered by noisy generators hauled goods out of wood-lined openings in the earth. Others were still producing only dirt as workers underground dug out cave-ins from Israeli bombardment.

The tunnels linking the Gaza Strip with Egypt are back in business, despite the hundreds of tonnes of bombs and missiles Israeli dropped on them.

Their fast recovery only underlines the difficulty of stopping the smuggling and reinforces Israel’s fears that Gaza’s Hamas rulers will use the tunnel network to bring in weapons to rearm after the blows it took in the onslaught.

“I fixed the damage in three days, we’re functional since this morning,” said Abu Wahda, who like others involved in the trade refused to be identified by anything but his nickname because of his smuggling activity.

By noon, the winch had pulled out 12 refrigerator-sized sacks of chips. Abu Wahda said the 1m high passage under Gaza’s soft sands was not fully reinforced yet and was dangerous for his eight workers currently undergound shuttling the cargo from the Egyptian side.

“But the worst danger comes from the sky, if they bomb again,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on Thursday that Israel was willing to reopen hostilities if the bombings weren’t enough to stop the smuggling.

Ending the smuggling — along with stopping Hamas rocket fire on southern Israel — was a key Israeli objective for its offensive, which killed 1,285 Palestinians, most of them civilians, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights counted.

The Israeli military said it destroyed 60 to 70 percent of the tunnels before Sunday’s ceasefire. Israel estimates there were about 300 tunnels before the offensive.

Smugglers in Rafah, a southern Gaza border town where nearly all tunnels are dug, said that there had been about 1,000 tunnels operating before the bombardment, and that up to 90 percent of them were destroyed.

Most tunnels were dug after Israel and Egypt sealed off Gaza following Hamas’ violent takeover in June 2007. While Hamas is believed to use tunnels to bring in weapons, most tunnels are used to get around the Israeli blockade and import scarce commodities — fuel, clothes, building supplies, cigarettes and even potato chips.

The tunnels, about 14m under the surface, usually run for up to 730m from Gaza into Egypt, where their entrances are usually hidden in homes.

Abu Wahda and other smugglers said on Thursday they had never brought weapons for Hamas. They said Hamas directly operates its own tunnels in areas unaccessible to outsiders.

One smuggler, Abu Bilal, said he’d be happy to bring Hamas weapons, “but frankly, the resistance never asks us to.”

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