Egyptian smuggling is fueling crisis in Gaza
RAFAH, Egypt: The Hamas military takeover of Gaza last week was partly fueled by caches of weapons smuggled through tunnels below this gritty Sinai border town. Two days spent with smugglers here suggest that to stanch the flow of weapons, Egypt will ultimately have to address the economic and social concerns of the region, and not rely solely on its security forces.
"There are two things here," said Ibrahim Sawaraka, who used his tribal name, not his family name, for fear of retribution from the police. "There is poverty, and there is smuggling."
In more than a dozen interviews shortly after Hamas solidified its grip on Gaza, locals said the Palestinian territory was a primary market for goods in a region short of jobs and other economic opportunities. They said, almost without exception, that the business of ferrying weapons was more about profit than ideology.
Working with small construction tools like jackhammers, people here said, they could dig a tunnel to Gaza in about six months. The shoulder-width passages were often strung with lights and a mechanized pulley system - like a tow rope at a ski lift. And while the tunnels were wide enough for individuals to crawl through, they often carried just merchandise.
One person said that most of the weapons smuggled into Gaza were Russian- and Chinese-made. Others said that the rifles, often AK-47s, might have come from Sudan and moved through Egypt into the tunnels snaking their way into the Gaza Strip.
In the last two years, since Israel withdrew its forces and settlers from Gaza, Egyptian officials said they had increased their policing of the border area, blowing up tunnels and arresting people connected with smuggling.
Israeli officials say that when they still had a presence in Gaza, they tried to foil the tunneling by installing a concrete or iron wall along the border that extended 3 meters, or 10 feet, underground. But the tunnels are typically 6 to 20 meters below ground.
Israel also used sonar and other sensors to hunt for the tunnels, occasionally setting off charges to cause undiscovered tunnels to collapse. They also urged the Egyptians to do more - which they did.
But no matter how much the authorities here tried to crack down on smuggling, people here said, the outlaw culture could never be overcome without economic development. Unemployment in the region is among the highest in Egypt.
While a percentage of the weapons smuggling is a function of solidarity with the Palestinians, people here said, weapons were also just one product that brought income. Many of the Bedouins said they also worked to smuggle people into Israel, often women from Eastern Europe looking to work in the sex industry. They talked of smuggling marijuana and cigarettes, too.
To discuss their situation, Sawarka and some neighbors gathered at a relative's house in al Mahdiya village, which is in Rafah city. They complained about the isolation and discrimination they feel as Bedouins, a circumstance they say leaves no alternative but to work as smugglers.
Smuggling has long been a part of the Bedouin life, offering a living for people who call home the expanse of desert that flows across borders. But weapons smuggling to Gaza began in earnest with the start of the first Palestinian intifada 20 years ago, people here said.
"Why do you think that people resort to smuggling?" said Abdalla el-Shaer, a resident of Rafah who said his brother was killed more than a year ago as a Hamas fighter in Gaza. "If the country provides employment opportunities, no one will smuggle weapons. With no other opportunity, they smuggle weapons."
In the expanse of rocky, rolling desert that extends past the dusty, rundown center of this town, there is a subculture of poverty and relative wealth that illustrates both the lack of resources provided to people from the region and the allure of what smuggling can bring.
Unlike southern Sinai, with its upscale Red Sea resorts, the north has long been ignored. Homes do not even have fresh running water. Officials also say that a small group of Bedouins from the area carried out three bombing attacks on southern Sinai resorts.
The problem now is that the Bedouins reject the authority of the state, because they feel brutalized and discriminated against. And the government continues to put pressure on the Bedouins because it questions their loyalty to the state, because of their smuggling and because of a fear that a strain of radical Islam has taken hold.
"Security cannot be the sole solution to any problem, no matter how small," said a general with Egypt's Interior Ministry, who spoke on the condition he not be identified because of the nature of his job. "It is the social problems that create security problems and not the other way around."
But, he added, "I cannot overlook the law under the pretext that someone is needy or poor."
The region's former representative in Parliament, however, criticized the government for not doing more to help with economic development.
"There is only security," said the representative, El Kashef Muhammad El Kashef. "The government does not play its second role of resolving such issues as unemployment and discrimination."
Wadi Amr is a bleak desert landscape about 40 miles from Rafah city. It is home to about 3,000 people, including many, like Jedeeiya eid Musleh, 67, who lives in huts made of twigs and scrap metal. Musleh lives with two sons; a third, he said, is in prison for drug running. They have nothing but a few cushions on the ground beneath a lean-to, and their hut. His wife left him to sell sheep on the street in Cairo.
"Anyone who has the chance to smuggle will do it," said Salim Lafy Ali al Tarabeen, 30, as he sat beside Musleh. Tarabeen, who was also using his tribal name, carries two cellphones, one with a local number, the other with an Israeli number. While with Musleh he received a call from a friend who said he was in an Israeli jail for smuggling weapons.
Not far from Musleh's hut is a large one-story house with four white Toyota pickup trucks parked out front.
"You have seen how poor people live. Now you will see how the smugglers live," said Ahmed Muhammad Hussein, who is working to help improve the Bedouins' social conditions. The house was filled with men in fresh clean clothing. Large bowls of rice and mutton were served for lunch.
The Bedouins' problems are one factor in a region that has been tense since the day in 1982 that Rafah was cut in half by the peace treaty that had Israel return Sinai to Egypt.
Israel occupied the peninsula after the 1967 war. As the border was fortified with walls and guards, families became split and the challenge of crossing from one side to the other became an act of defiance but also a simple reality of human nature: People were told they could not cross, so they did all they could to cross over.
Over time, Rafah became one of the most heavily policed areas in Egypt, with the authorities wanting to stop not only the flow of weapons to Gaza but also the flow of Hamas' radical ideas to Egypt. The overwhelming security presence meant that even the beach was closed, cutting off one last source of entertainment for the many children who live in the area, and stoking tension between locals and the authorities.
Today, there are even more troop carriers in Rafah. High-ranking officers set up card tables to rest their walkie-talkies and to drink tea as they monitor the scene. There have been reports of some people crossing from Gaza into Egypt, and officials said that they had sent some people back to Gaza and taken others to the regional capital of Al Arish.
For now, the Bedouin men who said they were smugglers say it is too risky to conduct business, because the security is so tight. But they still manage to drive the area, easily avoiding checkpoints, and are planning a protest for next month to demand their rights.
Mona el Naggar contributed reporting for this article.