Page last updated at 18:54 GMT, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Smugglers' alley key to Gaza conflict

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Rafah

Rafah's Palestinian side has been heavily hit by Israeli bombardment

Bedouin farmer Hossam Alawi grows tomatoes barely a kilometre from Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip. He knows he is safe from the vicious war on his doorstep, but he hears the constant barrages and he feels the tremors of explosions - and the pain of his Palestinian neighbours.

"It is terribly upsetting," Mr Alawi said. "I can't stomach what is happening to our Arab brothers. Who can stand up to this kind of assault. We should be helping them."

"They have got to open the border at Rafah - there's barely 100 casualties that have been allowed to pass so far."

It's a sentiment shared by many in Egypt and angry protests in the nearby town of El Arish have been mirrored across the country.

The anger focused on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who is refusing to open the Rafah crossing to all but the worst casualties and a limited amount of aid.

Mr Mubarak has set out his reasons. He can't open the gates fully, he said, while Gaza is under control of the militant Hamas movement.

The gates of Rafah crossing may be closed, but it is what goes under the border between Gaza and Egypt that underpins the entire conflict.


Close to Mr Alawi's farm is the so called Philadelphi corridor - 15km (nine miles) of perimeter fence, criss-crossed by hundreds of tunnels.

Some are shallow, others much deeper and wider up to 20m (65ft) beneath the surface.

I am not frustrated that I am stuck here, I am very angry. The Egyptians haven't told me anything
UK surgeon Sonia Robbins
Palestinians say that after 18 months of an Israeli-imposed siege the tunnels are their lifeline.

Smugglers - many of them Bedouin like Mr Alawi - have used the tunnels to move food, fuel, electricity, even livestock - but of course Hamas has also used them to smuggle rockets.

On the Palestinian side many of the entrances are hidden by plastic-sheeted greenhouses. In the past 12 days they have been pounded, countless times, by the Israeli F-16 fighter jets.

Smugglers on the Egyptian side of Rafah say most tunnels have been closed for the moment as it has become "a very dangerous game".

"In truth most of the arms went into Gaza last year when Hamas blew a hole in the perimeter wall," says one of the Bedouin smugglers.

"Thousands of Palestinians came across and plenty of weapons went through the wall in those 10 days."

Composite image of tunnels and map
1. The Palestinians have dug a network of tunnels, which run under the border between Gaza and Egypt.
2. The tunnels are carved out of the clay soil, and reinforced with planks and concrete. The bigger tunnels also have power lines.
3. The tunnels are used for smuggling arms, and other supplies, even livestock.
4.The tunnels surface under makeshift greenhouses on the Gaza side of the border.

The Israelis say any ceasefire agreement must include international backing for new fortifications and monitoring along the Philadelpi corridor.

Smuggled goods in Rafah
The tunnel network provides plenty of consumer goods in peacetime
Not just at the wall - but at the Rafah crossing itself - where doctors have been locked outside.

There were 50 Egyptian doctors who were trying to cross on Tuesday along with a British consultant reconstructive surgeon, Sonia Robbins.

"I left Gaza in December and I have not been able to get back in since the war started," she said.

"I usually cross at Erez on the Israeli side but since November they have not been letting humanitarian workers in."

Dr Robbins admits there may be limited help that she can provide, with supplies running low in hospitals in Gaza, but that does not blunt her urgent desire to cross.

"I am not frustrated that I am stuck here, I am very angry. The Egyptians haven't told me anything. Nobody has spoken to me, taken my papers, they have just told me to wait. Well I am sorry we shouldn't be waiting, people are dying."

Egyptian questions

A solution over the question of the Rafah crossing is a vital issue in attempts to broker a ceasefire.

Cairo fears that letting Hamas control the crossing will bring it Arab and international recognition, and Egypt would then be left responsible for the strip.

Rafah crossing
A solution to the question of Rafah crossing is crucial to ending violence
For its part Syria is striving to obtain international recognition for Hamas in the hope that it would grant Damascus a position of influence in any future diplomatic process thanks to its close relationship with the Palestinian group.

The Egyptian government is still trying to convince Hamas to accept its most basic criteria calling for a small number of European and Palestinian Authority monitors at the crossing, in line with the agreement that was signed with Israel when its forces withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Such a move would free Egypt from responsibility for events in Gaza and the Arab pressure that is building.

Events at the UN suggest the ceasefire may still be some way off, even though Egypt, together with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, is pushing hard for an agreement.

But as diplomats continue their negotiations the worst casualties continue to arrive at Rafah, including some children with appalling injuries.

The pictures beamed around the Arab world are adding to the pressure, not just on the Egyptians but also on the UN where they continue their search for the answers.

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