Ahmad al-Arja, a 22-year-old engineering student, was among the army of diggers forced to take the conflict off. But minutes after Israel and Hamas reached a cease-fire on the evening of Nov. 21, his boss was on the phone.
“He said, ‘Come on, count on God, and tomorrow morning, start digging,’ ” Arja recalled, as he began with his cousins the tedious, treacherous work of tunnel repair.
The business of Rafah is the tunnel network that circumvents the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and business once again is booming.
For Israeli leaders, who are seeking assurances since the recent cease-fire that Hamas be prevented from restocking its potent weapons arsenal, the thriving return of tunnel commerce poses a daunting strategic challenge.
Since leaving Gaza seven years ago, Israel’s military has lost its on-the-ground ability to stop tunnel smuggling. Since the cease-fire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought guarantees from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi that he will do more to prevent the illegal trade into Gaza — a diplomatic negotiation between uneasy neighbors that in the past has proved fruitless.
Without such help, the trade will almost certainly continue. As Israel has found in trying to suppress rocket fire from Gaza, an airstrike campaign against the tunnels provides a respite, not a solution.
“Our expectation of Egypt, and the rest of the international community, is to stop Hamas from rearming,” said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu. “We believe they came out of this latest round significantly depleted in terms of rockets and missiles. The way to prevent a future round is to prevent their ability to rearm.”
Maj. Avital Leibovitz, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said there is so far no evidence any new arms shipments have gone through the tunnels since the cease-fire.
Leibovitz said an Israeli ground presence is not necessary to stop smuggling under the border. Like the intelligence assets that the military drew on to target underground rocket launchers, she said, “we know what we need to know” about the tunnels.
Whether that will always be enough is unclear.
Israel targeted 140 tunnels during the recent operation, severely damaging dozens of passages beneath Gaza’s nearly seven-mile border with the Egyptian Sinai. The bombs buried entrances, destroyed concrete-reinforced walls and cratered the muddy access roads used by flatbed trucks that deliver goods across the strip.
Hamas security officials who monitor the tunnels — and collect “taxes” from the merchants who buy the imports — say at least 50 were collapsed along one busy mile-long stretch alone. Diggers think that hundreds of tunnels span the border.