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Page last updated at 07:56 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 08:56 UK

Sinai smugglers still tunneling to Gaza

Bedouin camp near the Gaza border
Many Bedouin in north Sinai live in poverty in camps with few facilities

When Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza six months ago among its main targets were the hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt, which it said were used to smuggle arms.

The BBC's Yolande Knell covered the conflict from the Egyptian side of the border and returns to find out if the smuggling trade continues.

I was driven along an unfamiliar route to the Egyptian border town of Rafah, using back roads lined with cactus beds and olive groves.

My Bedouin guide explained that the government introduced new security measures after late January, when a ceasefire was announced in Gaza.

"Now getting to Rafah from the next town is as hard as getting to Australia," he joked.

"There are a lot of checkpoints on the main road. You get stopped and asked a lot of questions. If they see you they will send you back."

A pick-up truck loaded with fuel makes its way to Rafah
I sent all kinds of goods through my tunnel - petrol, clothes, even livestock; the Palestinians need that stuff
Khaled

Under pressure from Israel and its Western allies to stop smuggling to Gaza, the Egyptian authorities have made many arrests.

We slowed down to look at a new three-storey home whose owner operated a tunnel which opened in his wardrobe.

I was told he was now in prison.

Still, there was evidence that the illegal trade continued. I saw several pick-up trucks loaded with fuel.

"They bring petrol from different parts of Egypt," my guide explained.

"There is a kind of market where they sell it to tunnel operators."

From the edge of an orchard, we watched discreetly as men filled up a large stack of petrol cans.

Then our driver became nervous and insisted we move on.

Dangerous situation

I was taken to a small house to meet an ex-smuggler who called himself Khaled.

Wearing a red-and-white scarf to hide his face, he told me he was on the run and that if the police caught him he would be jailed for five years.

A man passes goods through the tunnel
Tunnels were one of the main Israeli targets during the recent offensive

"I had a tunnel, but the government confiscated it," Khaled said. "They put explosives in it and blew it up."

"After the Gaza war they knew the names of all my friends with tunnels.

"My situation in Rafah is dangerous now. They are searching houses day and night so I keep moving from place to place. Of course I am afraid."

Despite the personal cost to him, Khaled felt no remorse.

"I sent all kinds of goods through my tunnel - petrol, clothes, even livestock," he said. "The Palestinians need that stuff."

Israel still occasionally bombs the border, targeting the tunnels, but Khaled argued that the only effective way to halt smuggling was to end the blockade of Gaza.

He said local Bedouins also needed other work and should be treated better by the authorities.

"Even before the tunnels came to Rafah, the Egyptian government was more strict with the Bedouins.

"It's discrimination. They say we're all criminals."

Negative image

Bedouin tribes have long been accused of illegal cross-border activities - including involvement in the drugs trade and human trafficking.

The beach in the coastal town of El-Arish
Egpyt declines most offers to help with development of tourism in the region

A clampdown, after a spate of deadly bombings in Red Sea tourist resorts between 2004 and 2006, has increased tensions with the Egyptian authorities.

Recently it was claimed that members of a spy cell from the Lebanese militant and political movement Hezbollah were being hidden in the Sinai.

"There is a really negative image of the Bedouin. They are seen as thieves and traitors," comments researcher, Sandrine Gamblin.

She says there has been little investment in local communities since the Sinai Peninsula was handed back to Egypt by Israel in 1982 under the terms of their peace deal.

"The region is one of the poorest in the country and there's a real need for development.

"The government has had many social and economic plans but these never really managed to bring any facilities: water, electricity and so on."

There is an attractive sandy beach next to the hotel in north Sinai where journalists and aid workers stayed during the Gaza conflict.

Now, some Egyptians are holidaying there but such is the sensitivity of the border region that Cairo has so far declined most international offers to help with development of tourism and other industries.

That means for the Bedouin, the tunnel trade remains a lucrative, if risky, means of earning a living.



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