Tunnel vision sees Gazans dig for victory

IT WAS Friday, the Muslim day of rest, but Gaza's border with Egypt was a hive of activity. Men scraped sandy soil out of holes that had served as tunnels for smuggling, and that were among the main targets of Israel's war in Gaza.

Now, a week after it ended, Gazans are back, plunging deep underground with lamps to carry rocky loads of soil out on pulleys.

"Everybody's busy rebuilding now," said a manager of one digging team. "In a month, it will be back to normal."

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The defiant pose seemed surprisingly brazen in light of recent events: Israel said smuggling tunnels were a prime concern – after Hamas rockets – in attacking Gaza, and it hit dozens of them in air strikes during the war. But the tunnels are the main livelihood for many people here, and as soon as the bombing stopped, they were right back in them with their shovels.

The revival may challenge what Israel sees as one of its main accomplishments in the war, crushing Hamas's ability to re-arm, and has drawn bitter reactions from residents, who say it is proof the war was a useless enterprise.

"The war was for nothing," said Mahmoud Abu Adnan, a grocery store owner.

But Israel argues that very soon the tunnels, restored or not, will not matter as much. It has secured agreements with Egypt and the United States that will make this smuggling route far less important. The details have not been made public, but Israel says it is confident they will work.

"What is different today is that there is a good international commitment to prevent the link-up between Iran and Hamas," said Mark Regev, the Israeli government spokesman. "We believe that Hamas will not be allowed to re-arm."

That commitment has yet to be tested. While Israel said that about 80% of the tunnels were out of commission after the bombing, Gazans seemed sceptical that anything would change.

"They can destroy as much as they want, but the tunnels will just come back," Abu Adnan said.

That spirit of defiance is at the centre of the Gazan psyche. Many do not condemn Hamas rockets, arguing vociferously that they are the only way Gaza can protect itself from Israeli aggression. The economic blockade, they argue, and the Israelis' unwillingness to lift it, is justification for the attacks.

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"Do you think we'd be busy digging underground if there was no embargo?" said Ahmed, a tall man in a leather jacket who was overseeing work on his tunnels. "If there was no embargo, we'd have real jobs."

Ahmed, who did not want his last name to be used out of concern for his safety, said, like many others, that his business had nothing to do with guns, and that his main imports were nappies and cigarettes.

Israel says it does not believe that, and argues that a lot of the tunnel business is contraband weapons.

Major Avital Leibovich, the spokeswoman for the Israeli military, said that before Hamas took power in 2007, after a violent struggle with its Palestinian political rival, Fatah, only four tons of explosives a year were smuggled in. Since then, the number rose to 100 tons. "This definitely became an industry of smuggling," Leibovich said.

Gazans argue it is out of necessity. Israel imposed an economic blockade after Hamas's takeover, limiting the flow of goods – particularly snacks such as chocolate, crisps and soft drinks – and tripling prices. The industry also soaks up a portion of this city's unemployed young men, who earn $100 for every metre they dig.

"You have 25,000 kids who have no work," Abu Adnan said, "so they go to work in the tunnels. It's an important source of income here."

The tunnels are located under dozens of giant plastic tents that look like greenhouses. Those who came for the first time since the war did not recognise the area, so extensive was the bombing.

Israel has contended that the bombing is a way to drive a wedge between the people and Hamas, but it seems to be having the opposite effect. One tunnel manager, Mahmoud, who is in his 30s,

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said he had felt closer to Hamas since the war, because, however flawed, they were the one group that stood up to Israeli aggression.

He said Palestinians feel like second-class citizens in Israel, and contraband goods can help them feel first-class.

"When I bring a salad and I see that my son eats it and finds it good, it makes me happy," he said. "It makes me feel human."

The tunnels do not address the more important question of reconstruction. Although the focus internationally has been on who will receive the money – the West does not want Hamas to get any – in Rafa, a far more urgent question is whether the Israelis will let materials through official crossings. Tunnels, managers said, will not work.

"Reconstruction now depends on the Israelis' goodwill," said Jabbar Qeshta, deputy mayor of Rafa and a member of Hamas.

The municipality has three bulldozers and about 30 cement mixers, Qeshta said, but the most basic ingredient was missing. "Tell them I want cement," he said.

As the digging continued yesterday, tens of thousands of children wearing uniforms and carrying satchels flocked back to schools throughout the Gaza Strip.

Along with Gaza's public schools, run by Hamas, the scores of schools run by the UN reopened their doors to the 200,000 children who attend them.

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"Of course, the first thing we have to do is a roll call to see who has survived the conflict," said UN spokesman Chris Gunness.

In one UN elementary school, in Jebalia, three chairs in an eighth-grade class were adorned with the names of students who had not.

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