RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Rafah's biggest industry is back in business: Gazans are rebuilding the network of underground smuggling tunnels crisscrossing the Egyptian border that were pummeled in a recent Israeli offensive, restoring the illicit conduit for consumer goods and weapons so crucial to Hamas rule.
The 12-kilometer (eight-mile) slice of land at the Gaza Strip's southern tip is humming around the clock with workers carting in cement, bricks, gravel and scaffolding. The quick rebound has raised questions about how much damage Israel inflicted on the tunnels during last month's eight-day air offensive.
Anwar Abu Lebdeh and seven other workers were laying bricks on a recent day to rebuild the entrance to a 500-meter (550-yard) tunnel battered by an Israeli airstrike last month. Nearby, workers hauled cement sacks on their shoulders, and a bulldozer lifted gravel onto a nearby truck. After loading up at tunnel sites, trucks lumbered over to Hamas government points to pay taxes on their cargo.
"It's our source of life, this is the only job we could find. I have been working here for five years," said Abu Lebdeh, 24, who had to slog through mud left by heavy rain to get the job done.
The tunnel industry has become key to Gaza's economy since Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory after Hamas seized power there in 2007.
The tunnels ferry in a wide range of items besides essentials, including Chinese motorcycles, farm and zoo animals, appliances — and large Iranian rockets that can hit Tel Aviv.
Responding to months of daily rocket salvos from Gaza, last month Israel unleashed its air force, starting with an airstrike that killed Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari. In eight days, the Israeli military carried out more than 1,500 airstrikes on militant targets, including rocket-launching sites, weapons storehouses and dozens of the roughly 500 smuggling tunnels operating under the short border.
Israel claimed it "successfully targeted 140 smuggling tunnels in order to impair Hamas weapons smuggling capabilities." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week told reporters that the offensive had "dramatically reduced" the Hamas arsenal.
Hamas has also claimed victory. Despite losing dozens of fighters, Gaza militants managed to fire some 1,500 rockets into Israel during the violence, hitting the Tel Aviv area several times and ending with a heavy barrage on the last day before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold.
It remains unclear how hard the smuggling industry was hit. Hamas estimates Israel bombed 60 percent of the tunnels, said government spokesman Ihab Ghussein. Some were damaged and quickly repaired. Others were flattened.
Tunnel operators say dozens remain out of commission, but they are quickly rebuilding them. The Israeli army acknowledges that smuggling has resumed, though it would not say whether this includes new weapons.
Tunnel operators, pointing off into the distance, said there are tunnels reserved exclusively for Hamas shipments, presumably weapons.
Evidence of the vast amounts of weaponry in the tiny territory came after Israel's offensive.
For the first-ever visit to Gaza over the weekend of the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, thousands of masked Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect his convoy, brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry.
The tunnels run underground from Gaza to houses on the Egyptian side of the border. While Egypt has launched periodic crackdowns on weapons smuggling, smugglers say the Egyptians generally ignore the movement of construction materials, fuel and consumer goods. There was no immediate comment from Egypt.
The smuggling tunnel business has been around for at least 15 years, but it got a major boost when Israel and Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak clamped the borders shut after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Israel also imposed a naval blockade, saying it was needed to prevent weapons from entering the territory. Continued...