Egypt turns a blind eye to arms tunnels

By Anshel Pfeffer, January 22, 2009
A Palestinian boy at the entrance of a smuggling tunnel on the Palestinian side of the border between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt

A Palestinian boy at the entrance of a smuggling tunnel on the Palestinian side of the border between the southern Gaza Strip and Egypt

The Egyptian regime is still enabling Bedouin smugglers to use the tunnels under their border with the Gaza Strip to transfer arms to Hamas, the JC can reveal.

Despite announcements by senior Egyptian officials that they would clamp down on the smuggling, local Bedouin traders are still offering — even after the Gaza ceasefire — to smuggle goods and people under the border.

These were the tunnels that enabled Hamas and the other Palestinian organisations to bring through materials to manufacture the missiles fired on Israel.

Longer-range Grad and anti-aircraft missiles are also taken through the tunnels, as are regular consignments of marijuana grown in Sinai, destined for the Israeli market.

The going rate to go through the tunnels this week was $400 (£280) per head. According to Bedouin traders at the Rafah border crossing, the smuggling never ceased during the past three weeks, despite the heavy bombardment by the Israeli Air Force of buildings on the Palestinian side of Rafah, suspected of hiding tunnel entrances.

In one case, a group of German doctors who arrived to treat Palestinian wounded were smuggled through a tunnel, eyes blindfolded so they would not be able to reveal the location.

“A lot of tunnels were destroyed,” said one Bedouin active in the smuggling business, “but the deeper ones that are well shored up are still standing.”

Contrary to media reports that the Israeli planes dropped bunker-busting bombs in Rafah, a senior IDF officer said that they had only used normal high-explosive bombs that were relied upon to impact the soft clay ground and obliterate the tunnels.

Despite the overall rundown appearance of Egyptian Rafah — a town split in half by the border, with Palestinian Rafah lying across the fence — there are clear signs of the profitability of the smuggling trade. New houses are being built near the border, older ones are being refurbished and the road has been repaved.

“Anyone here who has a house or land near the border digs a tunnel,” said a local resident. “It would be madness to pass up so much money and there is no other way to make a living here. The Egyptian government doesn’t spend one piastre on this area, so what else can people do?”

The Egyptian forces in Rafah occasionally make a big show of destroying tunnels they have discovered. Three weeks ago they even escorted a BBC camera crew to a series of holes they had sealed off at a building site near the border. But locals insist that these were not real tunnels, as they would not have been out in the open.

The area’s population is made up of Palestinians and Bedouin and while the Palestinians are tightly controlled by the Egyptian Mukhabarat, the secret police, and their tunnels are destroyed if discovered, the authorities will not interfere with the Bedouin smuggling operations.

“The police and army don’t mess with us,” said one of the Bedouin. “They know we have arms and can cause the government a lot of trouble.

“President Mubarak knows that the terror attacks in Sharm el-Sheikh
two years ago were carried out, not by al-Qaida, but by Bedouins. It was a warning that he can’t move us away from here.”

Egypt has invested hugely in the tourist industry on the Red Sea coast and is afraid of unrest from the local Bedouin tribes. In one case in recent months, when the Egyptian army tried to crack down on the activities of one of the tribes, they responded with an armed attack on a police post, killing a number of policemen.

“The only thing that will stop the tunnel business is a full opening of the crossings,” said one Bedouin. “But even that won’t stop the arms smuggling. There will still be ways to put arms on the lorries going through the crossings and to bribe the guards.”

    Last updated: 6:05pm, January 22 2009