Hamas Rebuilding Gaza's Smuggling Tunnels

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JERUSALEM, Israel - Fighting in the Gaza Strip may be over for now, but CBN News has learned that smuggling into the area is still going strong.

Much of it happens through a network of hundreds of tunnels dug under the border between Egypt and Gaza. 

Palestinians see this bustling underground traffic as a lifeline, but to Israel, it's a direct threat to security.  

In the border town of Rafah, greenhouses cover a network of tunnels used not only for smuggling goods to Gaza residents but also to transport weapons, ammunition, explosives and rockets. 

American Aid, Israeli Air Strikes

A television crew, hired by CBN News, filmed the tunnels just meters from the Egyptian border to see firsthand how much the smuggling industry has been affected.

America has pledged millions of dollars and sent U.S. Army engineers to help uncover and shut down the tunnels. 

Israeli air strikes and Egyptian ground actions have also had some degree of success; nonetheless, the tunnels continue to pose a clear security threat to the Jewish state.

"Most of the tunnels around here have been destroyed by Israel and Egypt.  When Israel scores a direct hit on a tunnel, 10 more around it are damaged," one Arab worker told us.

But despite the air force knocking out an estimated 70 percent of the tunnels during the nearly month long operation against Hamas in December and January, work on the tunnels resumed almost immediately after the air strikes stopped.

"The tunnel industry is reviving again. Since they've begun to smuggle regular explosives through [the underground network], this means a whole new game," Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Liebovich told CBN News.

"Before Hamas came to power [in June 2007], three to four tons of explosives had been smuggled through these tunnels. [But] after Hamas came to power, we are talking [about] hundreds of tons of explosives that are smuggled into Gaza every year," she said.

Hamas Takes Over Tunnels

Shortly after the IDF's military operation ended, Hamas took full control of the tunnel industry.

A few secret tunnels transport weapons and money, and many other underground networks provide Gazans with food and other daily necessities, sometimes transported in plastic containers.

"I am making $12.50 a day," one worker hauling clothing in large plastic bags told us.  "I have 10 kids, and I would rather die than see them without food," he said.

"People here are going crazy. Do they have to steal or throw hand grenades to live?" he asked. "Even the Jews will do much more if they are without food," he said.

But Liebovich said while life may not be easy in Gaza, it's a misrepresentation to say residents are bereft of humanitarian aid.

"There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza," she said, noting that at least 100 tractor trailer loads of humanitarian aid enter the Strip daily.

Hamas Supervises Smuggling

Hamas police prevent certain smugglers from importing drugs and weapons over concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of the rival Fatah party.

The Israelis say the Gaza tunnels are just part of a much larger operation funded by Iran.

Under the supervision of Syrian and Lebanese-based Hezbollah operatives, Iran is also helping to smuggle large weapons caches through the expansive desert areas of Africa and the Middle East.  Israel's air strike in Sudan earlier this year stopped one such transport.

The Israeli Army estimates that some 300 smuggling tunnels are operational along Rafah's eight-mile border with Egypt.

With approximately half of Gaza's population under age 50, hundreds of young tunnel diggers are working day and night to re-open damaged tunnels, despite the risk.

'God Saved Me'

"Israeli jets, so what?  My job at the tunnels is death [all] by itself," one worker, who almost lost his life when a tunnel collapsed, said.

"When the tunnel collapsed on us, I had no hope to be alive. I stayed in it for three to four days. I had my oxygen mask on. I had no chance to go back home, but God saved me," he said.

Meanwhile, Palestinians say they won't stop smuggling, especially as long as Israel keeps up its blockade around Gaza. 

But Israelis insist that more tunnel traffic will certainly lead to more violence.

"We are monitoring the situation closely, we are giving our recommendations to the political echelon, and we are ready once again [if necessary] to protect the people of Israel," Liebovich said.

*Originally published July 28, 2009

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