By Avi Issacharoff / Haaretz
At present Egypt sees stopping the smuggling as an essential step, which will prevent spillover of Islamic militants from Gaza into Sinai, and from there to the heart of the country. Egyptian intelligence is following with concern the increasingly close ties between Hamas (and Hezbollah) and Iran, and Cairo believes the militants' activities reflect an attempt by Tehran to undermine the stability of its government.
Hamas, for its part, is furious at Cairo and perceives the construction of the barrier as a strategic threat to its rule in Gaza. Ironically, the Egyptian decision to act so decisively can apparently be "credited" to Hamas' ally: Hezbollah. The arrest of about 50 members of that Shi'ite organization on Egyptian soil on suspicions of planning a terror attack in Egyptian territory - together with American pressure - spurred the current effort to block the Philadelphi strip.
However, parallel to the construction work, the tunnel industry is flourishing along the border in the Rafah area, under the auspices of the Hamas government. Twenty-four hours a day, Palestinian laborers continue to excavate new tunnels and renovate existing ones. This constitutes one of the largest branches of Gaza's economy, if not the largest. Each tunnel requires operating licenses from the Rafah municipality and from the Hamas government. Most of them are being dug openly.
Along a 10-kilometer stretch of the Sinai-Gaza border - for example, in the Al-Salam neighborhood of Rafah - one finds sheeting, protecting the tunnels' openings from damage by the weather. There is no real difficulty entailed in getting there. At almost any time of day, it is possible to find truck drivers, laborers and merchants at work. On either side of the border there are people from the security forces on duty. On the Gaza side, Hamas police observe the goings-on from guard posts. On the Egyptian side of Rafah border police are occupied less with keeping an eye on the digging of the tunnels and more with securing the construction of the new barrier aimed at blocking them.
"In order to observe what is happening, from above, I asked three border police at an observation post for permission to climb on the structure," relates Laura Weisman, an American news photographer who lives in Israel, who visited the area on January 12.
"I climbed up on one of the buildings adjacent to the border with Egypt," she relates, "surprising even myself with my climbing ability. The Egyptian side was in front of me; behind me was dirt road with 100 or more white plastic sheets on it. From there it was possible to see the Egyptian forces observing what was happening on the Palestinian side with great interest. From there I went down with A., my escort, who also served as an interpreter, to the opening of one of the tunnels. A young fellow stood there, in his early 20s. I peeked down into the hole. It was far from being just another cistern: It was an entrance designed by engineers, and it was clear it had been carefully planned. The tunnel was even impressive in its beauty and design - stone laid on stone, everything in its place, almost a mosaic. The young fellow invited me to go on down to have a peek into the tunnel."
Weisman felt there would be no real danger entering a tunnel that had been designed and constructed so meticulously, and therefore did not hesitate: She climbed into a contraption that serves as a kind of elevator - a carrier attached to pulley with an iron cable.
Presumably this device is able to transport not only journalists but also materiel, wanted men, Hamas people who go in and out of the Gaza Strip via the tunnels on their way to Sinai, or even to Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards training camps.
"The two workers at the opening of the tunnel held walkie-talkies in their hands," Weisman continues, "and spoke with two other workers down below. One of the ones on top announced, 'We're coming down to you,' and then he let the carrier go down.
"I reached the bottom. A young Palestinian was sitting there on a bench, with the walkie-talkie he had used to speak with us when we were at the opening. Next to him was electrical equipment for maintenance of the lighting along the length of the tunnel. Along the whole length of it, one could see a cable by means of which goods are transported in a small trolley, and also electrical wiring attached to the wall, which is used to power the lights. The tunnel is not particularly narrow or small: You can stand upright in it and it's about a meter and half wide.
"I started walking in the direction of Egypt without being worried about a collapse and without any feeling of discomfort or pressure. I did not have to crawl, maybe just lower my head a bit in certain places. But the walls were of rock, not sand. I was amazed to see that; it was hard to understand how they had dug the tunnel into rock. Had they used explosives? We walked for a little while until a certain point, where the escorts told me that we were now beneath Egyptian soil, and then we turned back. At that time no goods were going through because the tunnel was undergoing repairs. However, in normal times, goods pass straight to the special market in the center of Palestinian Rafah."
The Al-Salam refugee camp, like others in Rafah - including Shabura, Tel al-Sultan and Brazil - experienced harsh battles during the years the Israel Defense Forces manned the Philadelphi strip. This is very evident in the destroyed buildings, poverty and neglect in the camp. In the past, the Rafah area was considered the poorest in all the Gaza Strip. However, the tunnels industry has actually improved its economic situation, and so the poverty has "migrated" north, to the towns close to the border with Israel.
One of the characteristics of Rafah's economic "prosperity" is the market less than a kilometer from the border, where goods that have come through the tunnels are on sale: refrigerators, motorcycles, clothing and even food. At another location in Rafah, the merchandise is loaded onto trucks, which then carry it to other parts of the Strip. There it is possible to find rolled-up carpets and boxes of fish, and of course Gaza's new fuel depot, where large quantities of fuel arrive from Egypt, are loaded onto trucks and transported onward. The Israeli blockade seems more ridiculous than ever.
Photographer Weisman continued her tour among the abandoned houses of Rafah in the Brazil refugee camp, another area close to the border. There she encountered a phenomenon that is viewed less kindly by the Hamas regime: the "illegal" tunnels, which serve for smuggling goods and people - like narcotics and painkillers, which are widely used in Gaza, or activists of Islamic organizations like the International Jihad.
Faiz, a friend of Weisman's escort, A., is in charge of operating one of these tunnels, from a ruined building near the border with Egypt. This tunnel is not visible from the outside, and is less impressive than the first one they encountered.
"This time too, the diggers urged us to go down, but I felt unsafe there and refused to," reports Weisman. "Apparently many other hidden tunnels are operating in Rafah far from the Hamas authorities' eyes. In the past Faiz owned a clothing factory in the Erez industrial zone, which operated under an Israeli permit and sold products to Israel. However, ever since the factory shut down, he has been trying to make a living some other way. When I asked him about his new work and how many hours he spends at it, he explained: 'We work as much as necessary. This is our life. We do anything in order to survive.'"