Smuggling has become a way of life | IOL News

World 29 January 2009, 07:14am

By Louise Flanagan

Fuel tankers, bakkies, men on motorbikes and teenagers carrying 5-litre containers queue up at the pump, shouting and jostling for fuel.

It could be downtown Johannesburg on a hot afternoon hours before a petrol price hike, but this is an illegal fuel-smuggling depot in the Gaza Strip, just a few hundred metres from the Egyptian border, and another load has arrived.

These tunnels, the weapons smuggled through them, and the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel were the main reasons cited by Israel for its three-week bombardment of Gaza in Operation Cast Lead.

Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, wants Israel to end its blockade.

On Wednesday, Israel again bombed Palestinian tunnels near Rafah, alongside the Egyptian border. No casualties were reported.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said the air raid was in response to an attack the day before, “when Palestinians detonated an explosive device against an IDF force patrolling on the Israeli side of the Gaza Strip security fence”, reported Al Jazeera television.

In two incidents on Tuesday, two Palestinians – a farmer and a motorcyclist linked by the IDF to the patrol attack – were shot dead.

These are the first reported incidents since the fragile ceasefire of January 26 ended the three-week Israeli operation against Gaza, in which Palestinians said 1335 died.

A trip to the Rafah border area, hours after the air raid, found some tunnels apparently wrecked and abandoned, others being redug, and yet others full of activity.

“There is a city of tunnels underneath us,” explained a guide.

Palestinians say just about anything is smuggled through the tunnels – food, fuel, clothes, weapons, people and animals. Even a lion and lioness were reportedly once smuggled in for Gaza City Zoo.

The tunnel economy is regarded by any Palestinian asked as an unquestionable right in a territory blockaded for months by the Israelis.

“I’m working for the people,” said one man who helps dig tunnels.

Despite the morning’s bombings and the constant tense expectation of renewed war, there’s nothing subtle about the tunnels.

A wall separates Egypt and Gaza, manned by Egyptian security forces who watch from guard towers and buildings dotted along the wall. Unexploded rockets from Israeli jets lie in a jumble in the shadow of the wall on the Gaza side.

There’s a strip of no-man’s land about 100m wide, then a rough dirt road parallel to the border.

Alongside the road is what looks just like a South African informal settlement – shacks of poles, zinc and tatty plastic sheeting running for kilometres and zigzagging around heaps of sand.

Inside many of these shacks are the heads of shafts leading straight down to the smugglers’ tunnels.

Some have wooden shafts, some neatly constructed circular shafts of interlocking cinder blocks that can double as a stepladder.

Estimates of how deep they are vary from a few metres to 50m. There’s no bottom in sight from the top, and heavy graders and trucks weighing tons drive along the road alongside the road under which the tunnels must run to get to Egypt.

The tunnels seem to be run by groups rather than individuals.

At the shaft heads are generators, some as big as a small vehicle, power connections, plug points, lights and electric pulleys.

Security is everywhere – men in plain green fatigues, men in black, men in military camouflage, and men in blue camouflage police uniforms. Many hold two-way radios.

It’s not clear who’s who, and nobody will say, but some are presumably Hamas fighters.

In full view of Egyptian border guards, trucks roar up and down, graders excavate collapsed tunnels, and bakkies and tankers queue up behind a dune for fuel.

The Gaza end of the tunnels is run by a Gaza team, the Egyptian end by an Egyptian team. If a trader in Gaza wants, say, rice, oil and sugar, he arranges to buy this from another trader in Egypt – then makes a plan with smugglers in Gaza who tell him who to put the Eqyptian trader in touch with to get the load from Egypt.

Smuggling doesn’t necessarily mean someone has to crawl through a tunnel with each load of goods – ropes are used to pull stuff from one side to the other.

Above ground, men wearing gloves pause between digging.

A vendor walks past with a tray of cigarettes.

The place is full of people.

Behind the shack area in Rafah on the Gaza side are residential buildings, rooftops bristling with TV aerials and satellite dishes.

At the fuel tunnel-head, people queue to fill up.

One man said that under the Israeli blockade of Gaza, fuel used to cost up to 25 shekels a litre. Once the smugglers started up, the price fell to about 3,5 shekels for petrol and 2,5 shekels for diesel. It’s a little cheaper at the tunnel-head itself.

A tanker tries to manoeuvre out between the sandhills, between youngsters carrying jerrycans and a motorcyclist towing a cart loaded with filled containers.

In between, a vendor makes a brisk living selling halab, fried food very like a koeksister.

There’s a strong smell of fuel fumes in the air.

The shaft entrance and a huge metal fuel storage tanker next to it are partly shielded from direct view from the border in a dug-out area.

Nearby there’s no attempt to hide a huge vertical metal fuel storage container.

Men on motorbikes are everywhere.

The border region is tense, and some smugglers shout at the visitors, chasing people away.

Visitors attract too much attention, and their livelihoods are at stake.

The tunnel-digger puts it simply.

“These tunnels are the lifeline,” he said before heading back to work.

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