As Israeli Siege Strangles Gaza Strip, Hamas, Smugglers Profit Off Tunnels

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008; Page A01

RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Deep beneath the sands of this battle-scarred border town, Abu Mosab is making a fortune.

The money comes in the form of blue jeans, candy bars, cigarettes, shoes, refrigerator parts, gasoline and generic Viagra.

All of it and more passes through Abu Mosab's subterranean tunnel as it makes its way from Egypt to Gaza. And all of it is highly profitable because of a strict Israeli blockade that, officially at least, has kept out all but the most basic supplies.

For smugglers such as Abu Mosab, the siege has been their salvation.

"It's good for us," he said as he chain-smoked Egyptian cigarettes in his well-appointed Rafah living room. "And it's bad for everyone else."

It has been a year since Hamas took power in Gaza in a violent coup, toppling a fragile unity government and killing off rivals. Israel responded with a siege, and 12 months later, the results for most Gazans have been disastrous.

Much of the strip's economy has been driven, literally, underground. Unemployment has soared. Businesses have shuttered. And the prices for many goods have tripled or quadrupled amid rampant shortages.

But there have been some winners, and Abu Mosab -- who would allow only his nickname to be used -- is among them.

Hamas itself may be another.

Hamas now has at least three major roles in Gaza, though the lines between each have become blurred. It is the government, brought to power in the Palestinian territories in a January 2006 election and then using force to take exclusive control of Gaza a year ago. It is a radical Islamist movement that battles the Jewish state but that agreed in principle Tuesday to an Egyptian-brokered truce intended to end violence with Israel in and around the Gaza Strip. And it is the chief player in a sprawling illicit economy.

Hamas imposes stiff taxes on the tons of contraband that flow beneath the border each night, collecting revenue from the tunnels to fill its own coffers, according to those involved in the trade and international observers. Hamas also gets to decide who receives scarce supplies, allowing it to consolidate its authority. All the while, the group has used its control to commandeer tunnels of its own, ensuring a steady supply of weapons to use in its attacks against Israel.

"If you want to strengthen radicals and paralyze moderates, I can't think of a better way to do it than by closing Gaza's commercial crossings and depriving 1.5 million people of the right to earn a decent and legitimate living," said Sari Bashi, executive director of the Israel-based human rights group Gisha.

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