Smuggling between Sinai and Gaza still thriving

Bedouin guide claims there are 500 tunnels that can shuttle weapons, goods, building materials and people into Strip

A Palestinian worker inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, in February 2013 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian worker inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip, in February 2013 (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

With Israel’s attention focused on Hamas’s cross-border attack tunnels into Israel, the smuggling of arms and goods from the Sinai Peninsula has continued and gained a boost from the flare-up of hostilities in the Gaza strip, according to Egyptian and Bedouin sources.

“During the Gaza war, business has flourished,” a Bedouin guide, who requested anonymity, told Reuters.

The fighting and humanitarian crisis has increased the demand for weapons and humanitarian supplies that only skilled smugglers can provide. However, while their business is still thriving, it is not what it used to be just two years ago, the report said.

The crackdown on smuggling came amid accusations by Egypt that Hamas had colluded with the Muslim Brotherhood in carrying out “terror attacks” on its territory in the past few years.

In March of this year, Egypt’s military said that it had destroyed 1,370 smuggling tunnels under its border with the Gaza Strip. Coupled with the frequent closure of the Rafah border and Israel’s effective security blockade, the destruction of so many of the tunnels has left the Hamas-run coastal enclave almost completely isolated.

“The situation is much more controlled,” a senior Egyptian official told Reuters, noting that since mid-2012 the army had managed to seriously curtail the smuggling of weapons, fuel, food and drugs. “It’s not 100 percent, but we are trying to reach this percentage.”

For their part, the Bedouin smugglers acknowledge that the Egyptian crackdown has forced them to think smaller. The massive tunnels that used to accommodate cars and trucks have been destroyed, but many of the one- to two-meter-wide corridors have survived. One Bedouin guide told Reuters that smugglers had built up to 200 more such tunnels in the last two years, bringing the total of working tunnels up to 500. Comparatively, before the crackdown, there were some 1,500.

“Each day, about three or four people cross with weapons, and each one carries about six or seven guns,” the guide said, without specifying what type of arms were being transported.

A peek into a derelict house in Egypt where a tunnel opening is located — concealed only by a shower curtain — offers a glimpse into how the system works.

“This tunnel is a partnership between us,” the Egyptian tunnel owner said, referring to his Palestinian counterpart on the Gaza side. “Building it cost us $300,000. He paid half and I paid half. The profit is split between us 50-50.”

On average, the two men net about $200 per day by charging varying rates for different supplies, according to the owner. For instance, a one-square-meter crate of medicine or food would cost $12, while weapons, building supplies, or fuel might cost as much as $150.

When Egypt cracked down on smuggling between its territory and Gaza in 2012, it charged that militant forces were using the tunnels to shuttle weapons and fighters to the groups that were frequently attacking its military forces and causing unrest amongst the population in Sinai. While its campaign may have struck a blow to the enterprise, this tunnel operation proves that the threat still exists.

Much like goods, people can also pass, with the price starting at $50 per person; extra if they are carrying weapons.

“If someone is passing with one or two guns, we charge $60 to $70. But if someone has more weapons, it’s a special operation and might cost as much as $1,000 or $2,000 depending on the type of weapon,” the Egyptian was quoted by Reuters as saying, adding that he has no interest in who they are or their intentions, as long as his Palestinian partner says they are alright.

“As long as they give me $50, I let them through, he said. “I just deliver the weapons and take the money. I’m not concerned with where they’re going.”

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