Palestinians back to work on tunnels after bombing

Author : Mircea Birca | Thursday, January 29, 2009
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RAFAH, Gaza Strip  - Smugglers were back at work in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip Wednesday repairing tunnels running under the border with Egypt only hours after Israeli aircraft bombed the underground network.

“They dropped two or three bombs. But look, everybody is still working,” said a 30-year-old digger who gave only his nickname, Abu Ali.

Israel bombed the tunnels heavily during the 22-day offensive it launched on December 27 with the declared aim of halting Hamas rocket attacks on its southern communities.

The Israeli military fears Hamas can rearm through tunnels and targeted them again after a bomb detonated by Palestinian militants Tuesday killed an Israeli soldier on the Gaza frontier, 10 days into a ceasefire.

There was nothing clandestine about the bulky, bright yellow diggers and bulldozers grinding around the dusty area known as the Philadelphi corridor that divides the Gaza Strip from Egypt’s Sinai peninsula. The work was carried out in open view of Egyptian border guards 50 meters to the south.

“I’m scared but I have to work. What else can I do? It’s the only job,” said a 17-year-old, who gave his name only as Mohammed. He said he would use the tunnel to bring in clothes.

For the 1.5 million people in the Gaza Strip, the tunnels have become a main source of goods, including fuel, since Israel tightened its embargo following Hamas’s seizure of control in 2007 from the forces of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Many tunnels have sophisticated systems and seem to have survived weeks of Israeli bombardment.

SAND REMOVAL

Egypt, which has kept its Rafah border crossing with the territory largely closed, has agreed to help stop the tunnel smuggling, with international technical assistance.

But no firm plan is yet in place as Israel and Hamas argue through mediators in Cairo about installing a longer term ceasefire that would meet Israel’s demands for shutting off the arms supply and Hamas’s demands for an easing of the blockade.

Scores of white plastic tents and cement structures line the border, where workers removed sand from tunnel entry shafts.

One worker splashed muddy water on his plastic tent as makeshift camouflage, but his neighbors did not bother.

Bombs had severed several tunnels. Mechanical diggers gouged out the craters further, then workers came in with prefabricated wooden walls and roofing to patch the shafts. Once that was done, they bulldozed earth back over to conceal the tunnel.

One of the bombs dropped by Israel overnight hit a tunnel used for smuggling diesel fuel. It left a crater about 2 meters (6-1/2 feet) deep and destroyed a squat cement structure.

It had sent the diesel storage tank flying. The steel tank lay twisted on its side, pitted with shrapnel.

“It doesn’t scare us,” said 30-year-old Abu al-Majd, one of the owners of the diesel tunnel that was bombed.

“I’m going to rebuild. We have the cable for electricity and we’re going to start to fix it again right now,” he said over the rattle of an electric generator in the background.

Electric cables criss-crossed the bomb site.

“We brought in diesel. We didn’t build it to bring weapons,” Abu al-Majd added, declining, like all tunnelers in the area to be photographed or to let journalists film his work.

“All the borders are closed. We’ve no choice.”

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