Israeli strikes over, Gaza tunnel smugglers back in business

By Dion Nissenbaum

RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Abu Nissim rose from the covered tunnel entrance and triumphantly raised a box of Cheer Up chocolate-covered wafers over his head.

“New from the tunnel,” the young Palestinian tunnel digger boasted Thursday as his friends tore open the packages of Egyptian cookies.

One day after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip after a 26-day military campaign to destabilize the militant Islamist group Hamas and demolish the tunnels used to bring in weapons, Palestinian smugglers _ and tunnel diggers _ were back in business.

Bulldozers rumbled along the border, clearing away tons of earth for new tunnel entrances. Young boys climbed 90 feet down into the ground to recover supplies from storerooms in partially demolished tunnels. Fuel trucks pulled up to makeshift depots to fill up on diesel fuel and liquid propane, which is used for cooking, that’s pumped underground from the Egyptian side of the border.

“We will be like the phoenix rising from the ashes,” Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said as he walked through the rubble of buildings destroyed by airstrikes near the border.

His boast coincided with new warnings from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

“For the tunnels, nothing will be as it was before,” Livni said while meeting with European officials in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss efforts to ensure that Hamas isn’t allowed to use the tunnels to smuggle in more weapons. “Things must be clear: Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all.”

Israeli airstrikes repeatedly hit the eight-mile stretch along the border that’s filled with as many as 1,300 tunnels, used to smuggle in everything from young brides and lion cubs to rocket-propelled grenades and advanced missiles.

Destroying the tunnels was a central goal of the Israeli military campaign, which Gaza medical officials have said killed around 1,300 Palestinians. Israeli officials estimated that the attacks destroyed 80 percent of the tunnels, and Palestinians agreed that the strikes crippled their smuggling business.

Smugglers along the border said they’d be able to dig out within weeks, if not days, however.

Some tunnels already were back in operation Thursday.

A strong smell of diesel drifted along the border as Mohammed Barhoum stood in front of two makeshift, 8,000-gallon fuel tanks slowly filling with diesel and liquid propane as they were pumped through plastic pipes that stretched 450 yards underground across the border into Egypt.

Like other smugglers along the border, Barhoum said that the Israeli economic blockade of Hamas-led Gaza had forced him to become a smuggler so that he could take care of his family.

Before he launched his fuel-smuggling business last month, Barhoum ran a factory that makes construction blocks, but he said that Israel’s refusal to allow concrete and other supplies into the Gaza Strip had forced him to shut it down.

“If they opened the terminals tomorrow, I would go back to my business,” Barhoum said as his friends filled a Volvo tanker truck with fuel.

Israeli leaders refuse to allow a normal flow of supplies and aid through the country’s borders and into the Gaza Strip as long as its Hamas rulers stand by the group’s long-standing pledge to destroy Israel.

Abu Ahmed, a 33-year-old tunnel owner who used a pseudonym out of fear of Israeli retaliation, said that the best way for Israel to shut down the tunnels would be to open the borders.

“If they opened the borders all the way, all our work would be canceled,” he said as he took a break from digging out his collapsed tunnel.

Israel is trying to persuade Egypt to take tougher steps to shut down the tunnels. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has rebuffed suggestions that he allow international forces to patrol the border, but Israel hopes to convince him to crack down on the smuggling.

In the midst of the Israeli strikes on the tunnels, the United States agreed to provide more tools to combat smuggling, but it remains unclear when or how the U.S.-Israeli agreement would get up and running.

While the flow of goods into Gaza is a concern for Israeli leaders, their biggest worry is that Hamas will resume smuggling in arms from Egypt.

One seasoned tunnel digger, who also feared being identified, said that Hamas arms tunnels usually were longer, deeper and wider than the ones run by commercial smugglers.

It was unclear how severely the strikes had damaged the Hamas tunnels and how long it would be before they could resume normal operations.

(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.