RAFAH, Gaza, Sept. 29 (JTA) In this dusty frontier town so short of joy, one word invariably elicits enigmatic grins: tunnels. The secret underground passages from nearby Egypt are common knowledge among Palestinians in Rafah, a sprawling refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. For decades the tunnels were lucrative black-market trading routes. Since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks deteriorated into violence in 2000, they have served as the main arms conduit into Gaza. "We are the beating heart of the intifada," said Abed, a stallholder in the Rafah market. He refused to discuss the gunrunning, pausing only to reminisce about the times he dabbled in contraband cigarettes from Egypt during the relative quiet of the 1990s. "I was rich," he said. A crack Israeli garrison secures the Gaza side of the Egypt border, which, in accordance with the 1978 Camp David pact, bisects Rafah. As the bloodshed of the intifada has deepened, Israel has broadened its frontier buffer zone, razing scores of crude Palestinian homes to create a tense no-man´s land some 100 yards wide. Gunmen who regularly snipe at Israeli outposts and patrols mask the deeper threat local Arab clans that, though divided by the border, are united in their drive to keep digging the tunnels to fuel the fight against Israel. "Rafah is a strategic point for the terrorists, as Gaza is otherwise penned in by the sea and by the boundary with Israel," a senior Israeli security source told JTA. "They do all they can to keep going, and we´ll try almost anything to stop them." Israeli armored columns scour the buffer zone by day as Palestinians in the bullet-pocked buildings facing the border watch balefully. Tipped off by informers inside Rafah, the military also mounts regular raids deeper into the town, provoking pitched battles with local militia members sworn to protect the tunnels. One in 10 Palestinian casualties in the uprising has been from Rafah, and innocents frequently fall victim. Three Israeli soldiers also have died in local fighting, including a military cameraman shot while documenting the evacuation of residents from a building that was believed to conceal a tunnel. "Rafah is a dangerous and dirty business, but not tackling the smuggling means more munitions will end up being used against Jewish settlements and to manufacture Kassams," the security source said, referring to rockets manufactured by Hamas and launched from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Egyptian authorities report closing tunnels on their side of the border two or three times a year, enforcement many Israeli officials consider patchy. Jerusalem was even less impressed when, in August, Palestinian Authority security forces sealed several tunnel access points in Rafah in a show of anti-terrorist activity as required by the "road map" peace plan. Too little, too late, Israeli officials said adding that the move belied earlier P.A. claims that it was powerless to intervene. Israeli engineering experts were even more skeptical. "The Palestinian crackdown was cosmetic," said a scientist from the TechnionIsrael Institute of Technology who, citing his involvement with military research, declined to be named. Sealing access points has little impact on the tunnels, which run as deep as 30 yards down. "The tunnel is like an artery, with several access passages branching off it like veins to various basements in Rafah residential buildings," the Technion researcher said. "Shut off one passage, and there are still plenty of others to use." Given Rafah´s sandy coastal earth, new tunnels are always an option. Using hand-tools and buckets winched out with electric generators, locals can dig a new passage within three months. Terror groups are happy to front the cost, which runs from $10,000 to $30,000. In the summer of 2000, an Islamist Web portal published an interview with a tunneler under the alias "Honey." "At either end of the tunnel there is a ‘work manager;´ the two work managers maintain contact by code, usually via phone," Honey was quoted as saying. "If someone is interested in smuggling weapons, he makes a coded request and the workers schedule the date for the smuggling operation. The codes and passwords are transferred via phones and cellular phones." According to Honey, munitions ordered from Egypt are dragged through the tunnels using ropes. While most of the passages are little more than an extended crawl-space, some are roomy enough to walk in and include wall paneling, telephone lines and rest areas. One thing all tunnels share is the risk of suffocation, which means breathing tubes must be shoved up to ground level at regular intervals. That´s what often gives them away. "I was on patrol one day in the buffer zone when suddenly a pipe jutted out of the ground in front of me," an Israeli border garrison commander recalled. In such situations, he said, high explosive is poured into the giveaway recess and detonated. The resulting blast radiates down, buckling the tunnel and killing whoever is unlucky enough to be inside. The air pressure sometimes emerges as sandy geysers from the access points deep inside Rafah´s packed neighborhoods or, on the other side of the border, from Eygptian army bases where some of the tunnels originate. The Technion prefers to test more sophisticated methods. Electromagnetic rods have been placed at intervals along the border on the assumption that any cavities in between will break up the waves bounced between them. On occasion, super-sensitive listening devices are run over the surface in the hope of detecting the covert digs. One researcher even proposed strapping homing devices to rats en masse and letting them seek out the tunnels. "When I heard that, I laughed," the garrison commander said. "The mice in Rafah would eat our rats alive."
Gaza tunnels fuel intifada