Egypt steps up Gaza tunnel crackdown, dismaying Palestinians

Egypt has intensified a crackdown on smuggling tunnels between its volatile Sinai desert and the Gaza Strip, causing a steep hike in petrol and cement prices in the Palestinian territory.

Palestinians involved in the tunnel business say that the campaign, which began in March and has included flooding of underground passages, was ramped up in the past two weeks before a wave of opposition-led protests in Egypt expected to start on June 30.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has come under political fire at home over a strong challenge to his authority by militant Islamists in the Sinai who have attacked Egyptian security forces in the peninsula.

Egypt's military, struggling to fill a security vacuum in the Sinai since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was swept from power in 2011, has pledged to shut all tunnels under the Gaza border, saying they are used by militants on both sides to smuggle activists and weapons.

The moves against the tunnels have dashed the hopes of many Palestinians that Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from which Hamas was born, would significantly ease Egyptian border restrictions on Gaza, which is also subjected to blockade by Israel.

“Business is clinically dead,” said Abu Bassam, who employs 40 workers in a Palestinian tunnel network in Rafah, a town on the border. “Tunnels are almost shut down completely.”

Only 50 to 70 tunnels, out of hundreds that have provided a commercial lifeline for the Gaza Strip, are still open and in partial operation, owners said. Other tunnels are used to smuggle in weapons for militants from Hamas and other groups.

The Egyptian army has sternly warned residents in Sinai not to approach the fence with Gaza and to stop trading through tunnels or face punishment, according to Palestinian tunnel owners who learned about the order from Egyptian counterparts.

“Today we have to pay extra money to convince an Egyptian driver to bring goods to us…, resulting in rising prices of basic materials here,” said Abu Ali, another tunnel owner, standing beside the shaft of his deserted tunnel.


The price of cement in Gaza has soared from 350 shekels ($95) a ton to 800 shekels ($217). Palestinians who bought relatively cheap petrol smuggled from Egypt now have to pay for fuel imported from Israel selling for double the price.

The scene of long queues of vehicles outside petrol stations has become common in past two weeks, with taxi drivers waiting to snap up small quantities of fuel trickling in from tunnels that are still operating.

One tunnel owner, who employs 24 workers, said he was now bringing in 50 tons of food products a day compared with 300 tons two weeks ago.

Many Gaza residents complain they have been without cooking gas for weeks, with tunnel supplies low and imports from Israel scarce.

Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister in the Hamas government, said it understood Mursi's complicated internal situation and would be prepared to close all tunnels if Egypt allowed goods through Rafah, its only Gaza crossing.

At Rafah, where cross-border passenger movement increased significantly soon after Mursi took office, passage has been particularly slow recently and hundreds of people have had to delay their trips.

Egyptian officials cited technical problems.

Israel maintains an overland and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip but has eased some import restrictions in the past several years in the face of international criticism.

It announced on Monday the closure of its only commercial crossing with Gaza until further notice in response to overnight cross-border rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich

Tricked Into

Like everyone else, I used to divide the prostitutes smuggled into Israel from the former Soviet republics into two categories — the good ones who were tricked into it, and the bad ones who knew what they were getting into.

I think differently now. After meeting one of the "bad" ones for a story I’m doing, I see them all, both the knowing and unknowing, as victims, as innocents.

When I first suggested a story about the Israeli flesh trade to a foreign editor, and explained to him the two different kinds of women we were talking about, he said he wasn’t interested in "willing" prostitutes, only in regular women lured from their homes with promises of legitimate work and then forced into sexual slavery.

So I called the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which helps foreign prostitutes, and asked if they could get me an interview with someone who thought she was coming here to clean houses or something, and soon I went to Tel Aviv to meet "Natasha."

In jeans, T-shirt and sandals, she looked like any pretty 20-year-old Israeli girl, except more demure — hair tied back in a bun, little gold studs in her ears and no make-up. Nearly two years earlier she’d escaped from one of the "health clubs" near the old Central Bus Station, then went to the police and later testified against her pimp.

With her innocent face and soft voice, Natasha had a little-girl quality, but as she told her story through a translator she showed herself to be very mistrustful and cynical, understandably enough.

She first came in contact with pimps when she was 18, living in a town in Moldova with her father and stepmother. She’d studied to be a technician, but ran out of money, while her drunken, unemployed father had none and her stepmother refused to help.

"A girl I knew told me there was this man and woman who could get me work in Israel, and in six months I could make enough money to get an apartment and a car, so I went over there to see them."

I asked: When she met the man and woman, did they tell her the work was prostitution?

"They told me it was prostitution, but they didn’t tell me the conditions," she said.

At this point I wanted to go, both because Natasha wasn’t right for the story and because I didn’t want to cause her unnecessary stress — she’d been very reluctant to go through with the interview for fear that I would reveal her identity or whereabouts, which could get her killed. But I didn’t want to insult her so I continued, figuring I would at least get some background material.

She told how she and several other women were forced to hide underground in the Sinai Desert, waiting for their Bedouin smugglers to give the all-clear for the trek to the all-but-open Israeli border.

"We climbed down a ladder into a hole … like Saddam Hussein. We had buckets for toilets. It was hot, there were flies. We stayed there for three days."

After they made the three-hour walk to the border and were driven to Tel Aviv, Natasha was taken to a pimp who had her undress so he could "inspect the merchandise," and he asked her about herself. "The pimps prefer it if the women have children back home, so they’ll be more motivated to work," explained Uri Sadeh, a Hotline attorney.

The sale concluded, Natasha’s pimp told her she now owed him the $8,000 he’d paid for her, and she would work it off in his brothel near the bus station.

Giving sex to about 10 clients a day, she got to keep about $5 for each trick, while the house kept the other $30. Out of her average $50 daily wage she paid the brothel $16 for rent, about $12 for food and cigarettes and $4 for condoms.

"Sometimes the clients hit me. Sometimes one of the bosses would hit me if I said I didn’t want to do it with a client because he was drunk or he smelled," she said.

Natasha slept in the brothel. Whatever she wanted to buy was brought in to her — she wasn’t allowed to go out on her own and the whorehouse goon guarded the locked door.

She was on call 19 hours a day from 10 a.m.-5 a.m., seven days a week, and when she was on her period she used a diaphragm.

During the interview, I asked if her father had agreed for her to go to Israel.

"I didn’t tell him I was going," said said. "I didn’t say goodbye to him. Why should I?"

And her mother?

"My mother left when I was 1."

Is she in touch with her father since she left?

"I called him once, and he said he didn’t want to know about me. He said, ‘Why should I care, I don’t need you.’ He’s got a new wife now. We haven’t talked since then. He doesn’t know where I am," she said.

After four months in the brothel, a client who became Natasha’s boyfriend helped her escape. Her testimony later put her pimp away for 13 years. "Hooray, happy ending, right?" she said sarcastically.

She’s been hiding now for two years, scraping by with a menial job, alone with her history. Her plans? "To study, to work. To live like a normal human being."

Given her upbringing, did Natasha "choose" to become a prostitute? Does any girl who grows up desolate — without love, money, prospects or self-esteem — really "choose" that destiny?

On "Fight Human Trafficking Day" in the Knesset on Aug. 16, activists said about 3,000 female sex slaves are smuggled into Israel each year. They all started out as poor, bereft young girls. They all were tricked into it.

Gaza Pullout Raises Troubling Questions

If Israel pulls its troops out of Gaza, how can Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon be sure that Hamas won’t seize power in the ensuing chaos?

That’s one of the key questions troubling Israeli policy planners. So far, they have come up with a number of answers: Military force to clip the wings of the Islamic terrorist group before the pullout; diplomatic efforts to convince Egypt to play a peace-keeping role after the withdrawal and encouraging Britain to train Palestinian Authority police forces to maintain law and order.

It remains to be seen, however, whether these steps will satisfy the Bush administration, which also is wary of the potential for chaos in Gaza after an Israeli withdrawal.

Early Sunday, a large Israeli force entered the Bureij refugee camp in Gaza, hunting for known Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists. In the ensuing firefight, 14 Palestinians were killed, mostly armed fighters identified with Hamas.

According to Israeli military analysts, the operation was not in retaliation for attempted terrorist attacks the previous day at a border crossing between Gaza and Israel proper. Rather, it was part of an ongoing policy designed to keep terrorists off balance in the limbo period between Sharon’s declaration of intent and the actual Israeli pullout, perhaps some time later this year.

Such relatively large-scale military actions are likely to be stepped up in the interim period. The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, said that mere talk of withdrawal could be encouraging the Palestinians to intensify attacks to give the impression that Israel is fleeing under fire.

To counter this, Israel hopes to inflict a heavy defeat on the terrorists before leaving. The message is that the Palestinians will be making a big mistake if they think more terrorism will force further Israeli withdrawals.

At stake is the credibility of Israeli deterrence. Before Israel withdrew unilaterally from Lebanon in May 2000, Sharon urged then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak to hit Hezbollah hard so that the Syrian-backed Shi’ite militia couldn’t claim a victory that would inspire other Arab groups to attack Israel. However, Barak ignored that advice.

Because of that, Sharon believes, Arabs widely perceived the Lebanon withdrawal as an Israeli defeat — one that encouraged the Palestinians to take up arms to achieve similar results. The result: the intifada, now nearly three and a half years old.

Now, with the drawn-out intifada shaping up as a test of national wills, many Palestinians are touting Sharon’s announcement of a Gaza withdrawal as vindication of their strategy of violence. Sharon wants to do all he can to counter that impression.

Focusing the army’s attack on Hamas and Islamic Jihad also is an attempt to make it easier for relative moderates, like Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, to take over after Israel leaves and establish a modicum of law and order.

But Sharon doesn’t trust Dahlan or any other Palestinian figure to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza from Egypt after Israel leaves. Nor does he want to leave Israeli forces on the sensitive Philadelphia Axis, which runs for about five miles along the border between Egypt and Gaza and is the scene of frequent clashes.

For years, the Palestinians have used a system of tunnels to smuggle arms and explosives from the Egyptian side of the border into Gaza. Sharon’s solution lately has been to appeal to Cairo for aid in shutting off the smugglers’ traffic. If the Egyptians agree, close aides said Sharon is ready to make the necessary changes in the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace agreement to allow Cairo to move heavier forces into place.

Israel recognizes that controlling the Philadelphia route would require a different force structure and a different deployment on the Egyptian side, a senior Israeli official said. Sharon favors an Israeli pullout from all of Gaza, but aides said he will go that far only if Egypt undertakes to police the Philadelphia route. In other words, the outcome of talks on the Philadelphia issue could determine the scope of Israel’s Gaza pullback.

The signs are not good. In a recent interview with the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was highly skeptical about a proposed Egyptian role in Gaza, warning that it could lead to clashes with the Palestinians and even with Israel.

Israeli officials had hoped Egypt would step up in order to impress Washington and be recognized as a major regional player. But it seems it will take a lot of persuasion from Washington to get Mubarak to agree.

The leader of the Israeli opposition, Labor Party Chairman Shimon Peres, saw Mubarak a few weeks ago and said he thought Egypt would be ready to police the border but only from its side.

The Egyptians are keen to prevent chaos after an Israeli withdrawal, because it could have dangerous repercussions on the Egyptian street — but they would like to see the Palestinian Authority take charge. They have, therefore, been pressing the Palestinians to organize their forces on the ground and make sure Hamas has no chance of taking over in the Gaza Strip. Britain also has been helping the Palestinian Authority formulate a security plan and said it is ready to help train Palestinian police.

Similar offers have been made in the past, however; what has been lacking is any Palestinian will to meet their security obligations — a situation that, if it continues, could turn Gaza into a tinderbox after an Israeli withdrawal.

American envoys are due in Israel again soon to get a more detailed account of Israeli plans and of how Israel sees the Palestinian Authority’s future vis-a-vis Hamas.

Israeli officials argue that the Palestinian Authority can raise close to 50,000 armed men, as opposed to the couple of thousand that Hamas and Islamic Jihad can summon. Together with Egyptian, British and American help, that should be enough to keep the fundamentalists at bay, Israeli officials said.

If the Americans feel it’s too much of a risk, however, President Bush could ask Sharon, when they meet in Washington next month, to defer the withdrawal until after U.S. elections in November.

Given the pressure from the Israeli right against withdrawal and the apparent Egyptian refusal to get too deeply involved, Sharon may be happy to go along — and use the extra time to refine his withdrawal plans.

Preparing for War

A time for peace and a time for war. Most talk, for years, has been about peace, but there’s war talk in Israel now. At least one independent intelligence agency is predicting a regional war this spring, and nobody is offering credible deniability. The Palestinians have been smuggling weapons into the country — mortars, anti-tank weapons, heavy machine guns, who knows what else. The stuff comes into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt or sneaked past Israeli naval patrols along the coast. It’s not Jordan they’re gunning for, at least not to start.

A regional war, it seems clear, is Arafat’s best hope to precipitate international intervention (as in the Balkans) or even, if he’s lucky, to cut Israel down to size. But will the Arabs really fight for Arafat? Saddam might be eager to send arms, armored battalions, and anthrax. But even Egypt and Syria, who have no love for Arafat and a lot to lose, could be forced, by the hatred they have stirred up against Israel, to join the fray. Meanwhile, Tel Aviv has made plans to turn underground parking lots into shelters against nonconventional weapons — probably wise foresight but not a great show of confidence. Preparing for the same eventualities, friends of mine in Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, have redecorated their “safe room” as a bedroom and moved their children into it, just in case. They are surely not the only ones.

One hopes, of course, to avoid a larger war, yet if there is going to be one, maybe it’s better sooner than later, before our “peace partners” get more prepared. Meanwhile, continual acts and threats of terrorism are making people angry, bitter and helpless. Maybe our new prime minister will know what to do — Ariel Sharon, like Nixon when he was running for U.S. president during the Vietnam War, claimed to have a plan whose details he couldn’t reveal. Although Israel has struck back recently, the country feels no less on edge, and we have yet to see signs that there’s an actual plan at work.

Israel’s security services acknowledge that there is no way to seal the border hermetically — and that’s an understatement. Where I live, the Green Line is marked by the huge Yattir Forest. Anybody can walk (and maybe drive) through the forest most of the way to Beer Sheva. There’s virtually nothing to stop anyone, here or, except for checkpoints on major roads, along most of the country’s length. Maybe a fence could keep out the neighbors. But aside from the huge expense, a fence automatically creates a border, and Israel isn’t ready, depending on where the fence goes, to give anything to the Palestinians or outrage the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, Ehud Barak announced toward the end of his tenure that a fence was being built, more or less along the Green Line, starting in Maale Gilboa in the north. Soon after, at a bar mitzvah, I met two people from the Gilboa area. Neither of them had seen any signs of fence-building (or even heard of the plan).

“That’s just how things are done in Israel,” one of them laughed. He meant that’s how things aren’t done, I guess: absolute decisions are made and then not implemented. Maybe it’s not only the Arabs who mistake words for deeds.

Since the current mini-war began, the number of reservists seeking exemptions has doubled, another sign of how disquieted the country is. But it’s no wonder. All solutions to Israel’s agony seem either wishful thinking or, at best, very temporary, and in the meantime, men who come to the aid of their country could get killed for no clear national advantage.

Imagine the state of mind that develops from living inside a problem with no solution. The mind rebels against so painful a concept. And yet the Palestinians cannot accept what Israel can give, and Israel cannot give what the Palestinians want. There will be an outcome, but that’s not the same as a solution. Diplomacy didn’t work; now we’ll try war and see where that will get us. But it may be that neither diplomacy nor war will get us out of this mess in any final way. After all, it’s been going on for three millennia — read the Book of Judges. The best peace that the best of the judges managed was 80 years; most of them achieved only temporary relief or a moment of national honor. No wonder the Jews invented the idea of the messiah.

But the messiah hasn’t come, once again, and we’re stuck with real life. It’s too bad the Palestinians don’t seem to know that.