Rafah Smuggling Tunnels: Life-Nerve For Gaza (I)

By Hiyam Noir and Fady Adwan – Gaza

The smuggling of goods through tunnels beneath the surface of Rafah in Gaza Strip continues, in the eighth day of the tattered ceasefire between the Palestinian armed resistance and the Israeli occupant.

The Israelis have closed the crossings for legal imported goods,amidst exchange of accusations of who first violated the truce agreement. Mahmoud Zahar prominent leader of Hamas said in a public statement on Saturday that "Hamas will arrest anyone who make an attempt to break the cease-fire with the Israelis, and will confiscate their weapons. The Israelis have breached the cease fire throughout the Gaza Strip seven times, some of the shootings have seriously injured Palestinian farmers. In retaliation operations the Palestinian resistance fired a barrel of rockets across the border into Israel.

Since September 2000, the smuggling tunnels has functioned as an import of a significant amount of basic supplies, including medicine, food, clothes, auto -spare-parts, medical equipment, electronic items, foreign currency, cigarettes and weapons.

The Palestinians still have to rely on smuggled victualled from Egypt, food, medicine and other basic supplies through the underground tunnels, the life-nerves, which are stretching from Gaza Strip to the inside of the Egyptian border. The smuggling tunnel featured in our reportage, was built 8 years ago, in the beginning of the second Palestinian Intifada, the cost of building this tunnel is estimated to over $50.000. While working in this environment, in the cold, sometimes trapped, suffocating under water or collapsing walls of dirt and concrete, 82 people have died. It took three months to finish a hard and dangerous, 24 hours make shift work.

The excavation of smuggling tunnels in the Rafah area began in 1982, subsequent to the division of the Rafah city between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The average smuggling tunnel is approximately 500 meters in length, and 20 to 25 meters deep. The tunnels may be equipped with wood-paneling, electrical infrastructure, communications gear, and rudimentary elevators in vertical shaft, to transport people or the freight of goods. The openings of the tunnels are often located within private Egyptian homes or other buildings, near or next to the border with Egypt.

The Oslo Accords of 1994-95, granted the Palestinian Authority control over the majority of the Gaza Strip. However, the Accords stipulated that the Israelis would retain control of a narrow strip of land (known as the "Philadelphi Route") between the area under Palestinian control, and the border with Egypt. The route is 11 km (6.5 miles) long and approximately 100 metres (330 feet) wide. In the Israelis "peace agreement" with Egypt, the Egyptians signed a granted security control over Egyptian territorial land, running 70 meters east of the Philadelphi Road.

In August 2004, the Egyptians had knowledge what type of weapons being smuggled and could have prevented the smuggling of RPG’s into the Gaza Strip. It is also believed that Egypt wanted..Katyusha rockets to be smuggled in via the tunnels. The Israelis accused Egypt to use the weapons smuggling as a measure against the Israelis. In September 2004, the Israelis concluded that the Egyptians is supporting the Palestinian resistance against the Israelis which has enabled Hamas and other Palestinian political organizations to use Sinai as a logistic rear miles away from the fighting front. However it is also believed that the Israelis have used the Rafah tunnels as a pretext to create a depopulated ‘buffer zone’ along the Gaza-Egyptian border,which resulted in the destruction of 1,600 homes by September 2004.

In August 2005, the Israelis said that the Egyptians deployment of its forces along the border with Gaza Strip to halt smuggling, was a strategic Trojan Horse. The Israelis said that Egypt paved the way for a complete dismissal of the 1978 peace treaty with Cairo. The Cairo treaty stipulates that only one division of Egyptian armed forces, is allowed to be stationed in the Sinai peninsula, and only up to 50 km east of the Suez Canal.

Civil Egyptian police equipped with light weapons, were permitted along the Egyptian side to a depth of 40 km of the border with the Israelis. The Israelis said that it does not matter the small force, but they made a strategic mistake. The Israelis did not have any strategic depth,150 kilometers from the border or 15 km would be significant in an opening shot of a war.

In October 2006, Egypt threatened to increase its military presence by 5,000 troops along the Gaza Strip border. The additional Egyptian security members of the police central security force, were slated to join approximately 750 border guards. An Egyptian official, claimed that the deployment would occur in anticipation of a possible Israeli counter-terrorist operation that could include, bombing of the weapons smuggling tunnels.

In February 2007,Yuval Diskin the Shin Bet Chief, determined that Egyptian security forces were failing to stop the smuggling of weapons from the Sinai Desert to the Gaza Strip. Discin said that" If Egypt starts to thwart the transfer of weapons, then that will slow down the resistance buildup in Gaza Strip and delay a military operation there. The Egyptians have a key in their hands and they know it."!

The Israelis constructed a wall of 7-9 meter along the Philadelphi Route. In addition,the IOF detonated explosives along the route to cause collapse of tunnels in the area. Canals were also dugged in an attempt to flood the tunnels, with sea water. In addition, the IOF integrated "several sophisticated systems", inserted explosive material into the ground, including sensor systems that defined the depth of the tunnels. In January 23, 2008, the Palestinian resistance destroyed several parts of the Israeli built wall, dividing Gaza Strip and Egypt in the town of Rafah. Thousands of starving Gazans moved across the Philadelphi Route into Egypt, in search of food and basic supplies.

Hamas has excavated tunnels for operations against Israeli posts and population centers close to the Gaza Strip border fence. The tunnels allow the Palestinian resistance to infiltrate into Israeli territory and then return to the Gaza Strip. In June 25, 2006, members of the Palestinian resistance utilized an "infiltration" tunnel to carry out an operation against a Israeli post near the Sufa Crossing. Two Israelis were killed in this operation and Gilad Shalit was captured.

There are also designed military tunnels as safe passages for operatives in the Palestinian resistance in battle zones. Such tunnels are typically located between buildings. Hamas has also populated "ambush" tunnels with camouflaged IEDs and utilized underground (concrete) firing positions and offensive capabilities, hidden rocket launch sites which is activated via a delay system concealed in vegetation or between buildings.

Back in November 2000, the Israeli Radio reported that weapons and ammunition were smuggled into Gaza Strip and the President Yasser Arafat’s airport, via Arafat’s private air plane. The weapons and ammunition were distributed to Fatah Tanzim in Gaza Strip. Worth notice, even when the Israelis bombed the Gaza airport, and it was closed for traffic, the Israelis continued to permit the air plane to land and take off, and no inspection was done by the Israelis.

– Hiyam Noir and Fady Adwan contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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