Defiant Smugglers Ply Egypt-Gaza Border In Tunnels Egypt is taking a more aggressive role in stopping the flow of arms smuggled into the Gaza Strip and destined for Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the territory. But the smugglers' tunnels are also an important funnel for food and other supplies, and halting the trade is difficult.
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Defiant Smugglers Ply Egypt-Gaza Border In Tunnels

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Defiant Smugglers Ply Egypt-Gaza Border In Tunnels

Defiant Smugglers Ply Egypt-Gaza Border In Tunnels

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Egypt is taking a more aggressive role in stopping the flow of arms into the Gaza Strip. Those arms are destined for Hamas, the militant Palestinian group. The desert tunnels have been the route for a wide-ranging smuggling business of food and consumer goods, but also bullets and rocket parts.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Egypt's Sinai desert.

(Soundbite of creaking door)

DEBORAH AMOS: The wind kicks up the sand as Abu Talib, a Bedouin, who lives in a small concrete house with his wife and eight children, explains how things have changed for smugglers since the Israeli army offensive in Gaza - a 23-day campaign aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on Israeli communities. Abu Talib says many smugglers are now out of business, many tunnels shut down.

Mr. ABU TALIB: (Through Translator) After the war, Israel complained about the stuff going through. They increased the security, not necessarily changed, just increased. And there is nothing going through now.

AMOS: Life is hard here, says Abu Talib. He makes a small living from odd jobs with a truck he owns. His daughter, Hyah, says the Egyptian government offers no help, so many Bedouins get into the smuggling trade for the money.

Ms. HYAH TALIB: (Through Translator) For some it's a matter of bread and butter, but for those who have a lot of money already, that's when they have the ability to say, oh, I'm helping the Palestinians, too.

(Soundbite of street corner)

AMOS: On a drive near the Rafah border crossing, Egyptian police are visible on every street corner. Green military vans that ferry security personnel are parked along the dusty roads. This is new, says Matthew Levitt with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Mr. MATTHEW LEVITT (Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Egyptians have been doing much more than they had been, whether it's rotating senior officials in and out of the area to reduce the opportunity for bribery, shutting down a lot more tunnels, trying to do things farther into Sinai. But this is something that is in the Egyptian national interest, and I think they see it that way.

AMOS: Egypt's national interest has been tested more by Iran than by Israel, says Levitt. In April, the Egyptian government announced it had rounded up a weapons smuggling cell organized by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Then, Cairo accused the arrested men of plotting to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, in a conspiracy backed by Iran. Egypt has been aggressive in challenging Iran's rising influence in the region. This is one factor, says Levitt, in Egypt's vigilance on the border.

Mr. LEVITT: As highlighted by the Hezbollah cell that was rounded up, engaged in operations both supporting and arming Hamas in the Gaza Strip and, according to the Egyptians, maybe even plotting attacks in Egypt.

AMOS: But the government's accusations of an Iranian conspiracy have done little to dampen Egyptian sympathies for Palestinians in Gaza.

(Soundbite of arguing)

AMOS: Across Egypt there is frustration with the government's insistence on keeping the border with Gaza closed. Egyptians support the illegal tunnel trade. It's the only delivery system for Palestinians still struggling to recover from the devastating Israeli military campaign. Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based analyst.

Mr. ISSANDR EL AMRANI (Analyst): The Egyptians are not able to stop the smuggling entirely, not able or willing, because as long as the current situation in Gaza stands with the blockade, the tunnels are a necessary lifeline.

AMOS: Most of what goes under the border is now food, says Marc Lynch, an Egyptian specialist at American University in Washington, which still poses a problem for the Egyptian government.

Professors MARC LYNCH (Egyptian Specialist, American University): For them, it's not an open-or-closed problem, it's a filtering problem. They need to figure out a way to let the essential foodstuffs in without having bullets smuggled in in a barrel of eggplants. And that's hard to do.

(Soundbite of singing)

AMOS: In the Sinai town of El Arish, near the border, in this well-stocked grocery store, Abu Mohammed has seen the stepped up security. Tunnel traffic is down, he acknowledges, but not completely shut.

Mr. ABU MOHAMMED: (Through Translator) We get phone calls from Palestinians on the other side. We know when everything gets there.

AMOS: As long as there's need in Gaza, says Abu Mohammed, the smugglers will continue to dig deep into the Sinai desert.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, El Arish.

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