The New York Times
January 24, 2006
Booming Business in Gaza: Tunneling
By CRAIG S. SMITH
RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Yasser Qishta, 25, shows a visitor into his near-finished house, a two-story cinderblock structure with a pristine, pastel interior, all new paint and gleaming ceramic tile. The house cost him $32,000, a fortune for a man of his age in the Gaza Strip's troubled economy.
The house tells everyone in the neighborhood what he has been up to: burrowing beneath the border to help bring illegal arms into the Gaza Strip.
"I risked my life, but now I can afford to get married," Mr. Qishta said in a deep, resonant voice, sitting on a rug and serving coffee.
With Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 and Israeli ones in March, the unraveling of public order in Gaza has become a central issue in both societies. Dozens of tunnels have been dug between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in the last quarter century, and through them have come most of the weapons that fill this narrow Palestinian territory, threatening Israel and Palestinians themselves.
The gunrunning has actually slowed somewhat since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in September because weapons flooded across the border immediately after Israel's departure, depressing prices.
People involved in the trade say activity will pick up again if fighting breaks out between Palestinian factions or if there are renewed conflicts with Israel, as everyone here expects.
Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Israeli Parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, said 12,000 guns, several hundred antitank-rocket launchers, thousands of antitank rockets, tons of explosives and possibly even some shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles have entered the Gaza Strip over the last year, primarily through the tunnels.
"We're not talking about weapons for terrorism but about weapons for an army," he said by telephone from Jerusalem.
"Some of the tunnels were financed by the Palestinian Authority itself, and some of the weapons smuggled through them were bought by the P.A., although most of them went to Hamas, Islamic Jihad or other terrorist organizations," Mr. Steinitz added.
He complained that Egypt, too, bore responsibility. "The smuggling doesn't begin in the tunnels," he said. "Egypt is doing to Israel exactly what Syria is doing to the Americans in Iraq, putting troops on the border and then succeeding not to succeed."
He said that Israel asked both Egypt and Jordan to stop weapons smuggling into the Palestinian areas five years ago and that Jordan, with a longer border and larger domestic Palestinian population, had managed to do so. "But Egypt did almost nothing, and today 90 percent of the Palestinians' weapons and arms are coming from Egypt," Mr. Steinitz said.
Since the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement last year promising to police the border more vigilantly if Israel stopped destroying houses, the Palestinian's Preventative Security Service has filled more than 10 tunnels with concrete. But people involved with the tunnels said the Palestinian Authority's ability to close all of the tunnels was limited because of the militia's greater firepower.
The first smuggling tunnel was dug in 1982 after the border fence left extended families split between the Gaza Strip and Egypt when the border was re-established upon Israel's withdrawal from Sinai. The tunnels were used primarily to smuggle cigarettes, hashish, gold and car parts in those days, residents say.
But after the first intifada broke out in late 1987, the tunnels were also used to smuggle weapons and people who were wanted by the Israelis.
The first tunnels were about 200 feet long, dug from house to house under the twin border fences and the "Philadelphi" patrol road that ran between them. In those days, the houses were close enough to the fences that the families could shout to one another across the Israeli-patrolled no man's land.
But after Israel began destroying houses from which the tunnels started on the Palestinian side and Egypt, too, began cracking down, the narrow tunnels grew longer and longer, some eventually reaching three-quarters of a mile.
The activity increased during the second intifada of 2000 when the incentive for taking such risks was high: a Kalashnikov that cost $500 in Egypt fetched as much as $2,500 in the Gaza Strip at the time. Each shipment included hundreds of guns.
People with no smuggling experience joined in and charged smugglers a fee for using the tunnels. One Rafah resident involved in the tunneling estimated that as many as 30 main tunnels snaked beneath the border. Others put the number even higher. As Israel destroyed the tunnel entrances, other people burrowed new channels to what remained of the existing tunnels from houses farther away.
In the beginning, the tunnels started from both sides, each team heading at an angle - northeast from Egypt, for example, southwest from Gaza - digging in the soft sand just beneath the region's sedimentary layer of hard clay that formed the tunnels' natural ceiling. eventually, the two channels crossed.
Since Egypt began cracking down, though, the tunnels have been dug from the Palestinian side, heading several hundred yards into Egyptian territory before surfacing in a pasture or olive grove. The tunnelers send up a pipe for their accomplices in Egypt to locate and break open the tunnel's "eye" from below with a car jack at night when the shipment is ready.
The tunnels are used only a handful of times before they are abandoned because of the quickly increasing risk of getting caught once it is opened on the Egyptian side.
Israel tried to foil the tunneling by installing an 25-foot concrete or iron wall along the border that extends 10 feet underground. But the tunnels are typically 20 to 65 feet deep. It also used sonar and other sensors to hunt for the tunnels, occasionally setting off charges in the ground to cause undiscovered tunnels to collapse.
Now, with the Israelis gone, evidence of those tunnels is not hard to find among the bullet-hole peppered houses facing the border and in the collapsed concrete and rebar remains of the destroyed homes. Another member of Mr. Qishta's clan - the largest of those living here along the border - recently led a visitor through the wreckage, pointing out rubble-filled tunnel openings.
Mr. Qishta said he had been earning less than $10 a day working on construction sites for his father when a friend recruited him to help dig a tunnel in June 2003.
"He told me that I was going to disappear, that I couldn't even tell my father," recalled Mr. Qishta, a tall, muscular man with a short, sandy-colored beard. Tunnel workers often remain in hiding for the months it takes to finish because neighbors who discover the digging may demand a share of the profits to keep quiet.
His cousin said there were many telltale signs that tip people off, including the smell of clay, traces of sand
indoors or dirt under fingernails.
It is a claustrophobic, dangerous business, with the tunnels only large enough for a slight man to squat in. About 250 yards into the project, Mr. Qishta said, he was almost buried alive in a partial collapse while drilling upward. A colleague dug him out.
Many others have not been so lucky. In 2001, two brothers, Suleiman and Muhammad el-Sharr, hit a 50-inch water pipe while drilling toward the surface.
The rush of water collapsed the tunnel, burying them in mud. Their mother, with a dirty apron over her robe and a white knit shawl over her head, said that it took three days to get the bodies out.
That tunnel ran hundreds of yards into Egypt and was particularly deep, 50 feet in some places. Members of the family say it was intended to move tons of arms into the Gaza Strip, including Katyusha rockets, mines, mortars, grenades and assault rifles. The weapons were later seized in the Red Sea aboard a ship named the Karine A before they could reach Egypt.
The seizure of the Karine A was a turning point in the West's post-Oslo disenchantment with the Palestinian Authority under Yasir Arafat, which was clearly implicated in the shipment. The captain of the ship was an employee of the Palestinian Authority's transport ministry, and the man behind the tunnel is now a captain in the Palestinian security forces.
Mr. Qishta said his team had continued well beyond the border before digging upward in Egypt. In May 2004, they finally opened the "eye" and brought four shipments into the Gaza Strip, totaling 900 Kalashnikovs, 400 handguns and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.
The guns, tied into bundles and packed in empty flour sacks, were pulled through the tunnel with the same cables and electrical motors that the tunnelers had used to remove the sand while they were digging. Each shipment took about an hour to move through the tunnel.
"Everyone got $23,000 and a Kalashnikov," Mr. Qishta said, adding that the tunnel's initial investor made $150,000. Mr. Qishta said he had sold the gun and last year worked briefly on another tunnel that netted him $5,000. He has been asked to work on other tunnels, but said he did not want to press his luck and has gone back to work for his father instead.
* Copyright 2006The New York Times Company