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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Why the West cannot stop smuggling tunnels

The UAE National newspaper has an illuminating article about the Rafah tunnels, and it is pretty clear that no amount of "memoranda" will be able to stop them from being built.

And the reason is because Egypt will not crack down on them.
After weeks of bombing and despite high-level meetings and diplomatic speeches pledging to end the smuggling of goods and weapons from Egypt to this Palestinian enclave, reconstruction of what the workers here estimate are 1,000 tunnels has continued unabated for the three days since Israel and Hamas ceased firing.

“Israel will never succeed. I will make it 25 metres deep” to avoid the Israeli bombs that destroyed this narrow corridor during the three-week assault, said Abu Haysem, one of the Rafah tunnel owners. Abu Haysem said he built his tunnel out of the basement of his home, which lays, speckled with shrapnel, about 320 metres from, and 14 metres under, the Egypt-Gaza border.

If Egypt decides to stop the tunnels from working, they can. They can block the roads to Rafah and arrest the tunnel owners,” said Abu Haysem. “Egypt says they will stop the tunnels but they don’t because they want the money.”

That money – 50 per cent of Abu Haysem’s lucrative trade – is used to pay his partners across the border and funds their graft scheme with Egyptian officials.

The sentiment on the ground remains one of scepticism that serious steps would be taken to halt the smuggling. Indeed, most of the tunnelling along the border is done in the open, within sight of Egyptian border posts.

Other than by bribing officials, some tunnel owners claim their tunnels will remain open thanks to Egyptian solidarity with the Palestinians, after Egypt faced the opprobrium of several Arab countries for keeping their part of the Gaza border sealed. That sympathy, said Akram Hamad, a tunnel worker, is partly derived from a common understanding between Egyptians and Gazans: that the Rafah tunnels no longer traffic in weapons. “The Egyptian side has sympathy with us when it comes to food, but when it comes to weapons they are very strict,” said Mr Hamad.

The Egyptians tied to the tunnels apparently do very little actual work building them, but assume the bulk of the legal risk and responsibility for bribing Egyptian authorities to get materials through them.
I tend to believe that most Rafah tunnel diggers are reluctant to smuggle arms nowadays, but the author doesn't consider that Hamas has its own tunnels exclusively for weapons and explosives whose owners are much less likely to grant interviews. Indeed, Hamas has more money for bribes from taxing the goods from the "consumer tunnels," and Egypt regularly finds caches of explosives and arms in the Sinai meant for Gaza. (It is entirely possible that Hamas has built tunnels south of Rafah, as well.)

At any rate, the idea that the tunnels could be closed without full Egyptian cooperation is a non-starter. Money tends to make people a bit less interested in adhering to agreements.