Conflict & Justice

The end of Gaza's tunnel industry? Not likely.


A Palestinian man works at a tunnel used for smuggling goods into the Gaza Strip, which links Egypt to the southern Gaza town of Rafah, on March 28, 2011. Underground tunnels located on the frontier between the Gaza Strip town of Rafah and Egypt, are used to transfer all kinds of goods into the densely populated Palestinian enclave, even cattle and dismantled vehicles.



Egypt's interim military-led government is permanently opening the country's Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip this weekend, in one of the biggest foreign policy shifts since Hosni Mubarak's ouster earlier this year.

Rafah was first sealed in 2007, after Hamas violently seized control of Gaza from Palestinian rival Fatah. Israel began its air, land, and sea blockade on Gaza around the same time.

Since then, Mubarak opened the gates to the besieged Palestinian territory only intermittently for humanitarian aid and some religious holidays.

The change in the Egyptian government's long-held stance with Rafah appears to be aimed at placating the demands of its own citizens, who have long viewed their frosty 1979 peace treaty with Israel with suspicion.

The lack of Egyptian popular support for their neighbor was evident last week, as hundreds of protesters gathered outside Tel Aviv's embassy in Cairo, burning Israeli flags to commemorate the "nakba", or "catastrophe" when Palestinians fled their homeland after the creation of Israel in 1948.

Israeli officials called the opening of Rafah a dangerous development, saying the move would allow Al Qaeda affiliates and terrorists to import weapons, bombs, and rockets close to their backyard.

Hamas reacted with jubilation. The Islamist group believes Gaza's residents will once again be allowed to enter and leave the embattled strip to resupply it with goods banned by Israel, like cement.

But not all Palestinians are happy about the opening of Rafah.

For years, the 7-mile long patch of desert between Egypt and Gaza has been the heart of one of the biggest tunnel smuggling operations in the world.

The multimillion-dollar tunneling industry kept Gaza's economy afloat during Israel's siege, importing everyday items like microwave ovens, chocolate, cigarettes, cars, cattle, fresh fish, steroids, and even women.

It not yet clear whether the imminent opening of the Rafah border will allow free passage of goods as well as people. But some Gazan smugglers are worried that the potential free flow of merchandise may bring an end to their illicit sales.

But will the Gaza tunnels ever shut down completely? Not likely.

Smuggling has existed along Egypt's border with Gaza since the 1980's, long before Israel's siege began. As long as there have been tunnels, there has been talk of the demise of Gaza's tunnel economy.

The tunnels will undoubtedly take a financial hit with freer trade between Gaza and Egypt.

But the smugglers have demonstrated their ability to improvise and adapt to changing circumstances. After all, the tunnels came into being in the first place to circumvent rules and restrictions - especially with regards to weapons.

Or, as one smuggler told CNN in this report, "...even with an opening [of Rafah], there will always be things that can't legally get across."