Smugglers' Tunnels Still Operating In Gaza

Israel and the United States have each said that the key to maintaining a cease-fire in Gaza is shutting down the tunnels used to smuggle arms in from Egypt. Much of the smuggling is done by nomadic Bedouins. They say the tunnels won't be shut down until the Egyptian government treats them fairly.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Inauguration Day was relatively quiet in the Gaza Strip. That's where Israel and Hamas observed a cease-fire that's widely seen as timed for the inauguration, which is now over. The question is whether that cease-fire can last. Israel and the United States want to make sure that Hamas does not take advantage of the quiet to rearm through tunnels in Egypt. For Egypt, those tunnels are a puzzle that the government has long been unable or, some say, unwilling to solve. The Bedouins who do much of the smuggling say the Egyptian government has never treated them fairly. And we have a report this morning from NPR's Peter Kenyon in the Sinai Peninsula.

PETER KENYON: Egypt has long argued that it could reduce the weaponry that finds its way into the tunnels headed for Gaza if its peace accord with Israel didn't limit the number of troops it can have close to the border to 750. Isander al-Amrani(ph) a Cairo-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, says the Egyptians do have a point because the accord also bars certain equipment from being deployed there.

Mr. ISANDER AL-AMRANI (Analyst, International Crisis Group, Cairo): It's a mountainous region. The local Bedouins know these mountains inside out. Often the Egyptians are unable to use, for instance, helicopters to go and chase them. So, the other possible outcome is that the Egyptians and the Israelis will have to renegotiate these terms that limit the security presence at the border.

KENYON: But virtually no one who lives along the border in north Sinai believes that's the only problem Egypt faces with the tunnels. Many say the bigger problem is the seriously dysfunctional relationship the government has with the Bedouin tribes here. Sheikh Hallaf(ph), tribal leader of Gora(ph), a village very close to the border, is too diplomatic to criticize the government directly. He prefers to say the very severe problems are due to the actions of certain security forces under the Department of Interior.

Sheikh HALLAF (Bedouin Tribal Leader, Gora, Sinai): (Through Translator) We cannot yet see daylight. There are harsh relations between some Sinai tribes and the Ministry of Interior, and of course the Ministry is part of the government.

KENYON: Those relations grew harsher last fall when three Bedouins were killed by security forces. If that had happened in, say, Cairo or Alexandria, the response might have been protests or lawsuits. Not here. Enraged tribesmen responded by kidnapping dozens of the Interior security force, including officers. They also released a video of one security man appearing to confess that a Bedouin man had been tortured during interrogation. Analysts say the government, which routinely crushes dissent elsewhere, is extremely wary of provoking clashes with the Bedouin that it may not be able to contain.

(Soundbite of people ululating)

KENYON: At a Bedouin farmhouse, young women gather for a pre-wedding celebration held in a closed-off area where the men don't go. In this fiercely traditional society, honor is paramount, but that in no way prevents many people here from making their living through smuggling. Some work the tunnels into Gaza, providing food, fuel, and sometimes weapons, while others work the Egypt-Israeli border, where both the drug trade and human trafficking are thriving concerns.

The patriarch of this family is eager to convey his anger at the Israeli bombardment of Gaza to a visiting reporter and says of course Hamas should be allowed to rearm. But a younger member of the family who gives his name as Abu Hian(ph) laughs at the Egyptian government's assertion that it's physically incapable of closing the smuggling tunnels.

Mr. ABU HIAN: (Through Translator) The Egyptian government could prohibit these tunnels in 24 hours. Maybe they haven't done it because they're really trying to help the Palestinians or maybe it's because there's money coming into Egypt from the tunnels. It's their decision on what to do about the tunnels, not ours.

KENYON: Analyst Isander al-Amrani says the economic argument is a big problem for Egypt, considering its already rocky relations with the Bedouin.

Mr. AL-AMRANI: There is a vast criminal economy there that, of course, should be brought under control. But the problem is that the Egyptian government has never really developed a plan to offer economic alternatives for the people who live there. And that's a very difficult issue that they'll have to deal with.

KENYON: The people of Gaza therefore face a dilemma. On the one hand, if arms smuggling resumes, another Israeli assault may result. On the other hand, if the tunnels are closed and the Rafah Crossing to Egypt doesn't open, Gaza will be completely at Israel's mercy for its supplies of food, fuel, and electricity - precisely the situation that led to the recent violence. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip.

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