RAFAH, Gaza — The area between the Egyptian border-fence and the Gaza town of Rafah looks something like the face of the moon, with deep craters and towering dirt mounds. Trees and grass are nowhere to be seen.
The desolate terrain has come alive with activity in recent weeks. Workers scurry about, Caterpillar tractors move earth, generators whir — all as Egyptian border guards watch from nearby towers and the occasional Israeli drone observes from above.
This is a smuggler's paradise, and the smugglers are hustling to rebuild tunnels between Gaza and Egypt — damaged but not destroyed in the recent three-week Israeli bombardment — eager for a return to the easy profits they made before the start of the conflict.
When Israel launched its air offensive in December, one of its stated aims was to stop the flow of arms to Hamas through these tunnels. Israeli jets could be seen pounding the tunnels along the border throughout the conflict.
While traffic through the tunnels reportedly slowed during the war, goods still flowed. Even as bombs could be heard echoing along the border, Star Square in the center of Rafah was alive with vendors selling gas from drums, donkey carts and Coca-Cola bottles.
Business “is easy,” said Tarek Al Wazir, one of the vendors, “because we still get it from the tunnels.”
In the days after both sides called a cease-fire, goods began to flow more steadily through many of the tunnels, while workers rushed to make repairs to damaged shafts just 100 meters or so from the border with Egypt.
They did all this in the open, in most cases not even bothering to reconstruct the tarpaulin tents that had covered the entrances to many tunnels.
Nearby the entrance to one tunnel, Jamil Al Masry and his workers sat around casually, having just brought through one shipment of generators and another of toy dolls. Down the street, a flat-bed truck idled as workers piled it high with goods brought through the tunnels.
“We just wait until they call us. Then we go get the things,” Al Masry said, referring to his workers who lounged in the tent, drinking tea as they waited for word from Egypt.
The existence of the tunnels, which according to some estimates could number more than 1,000, was again brought to international attention recently as Israel continued its bombing campaign along the border despite a self-imposed cease-fire.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his allies have made destruction of the tunnels a priority.
"For the tunnels, nothing will be as it was before," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said on public radio Jan. 22, according to Agence France-Presse. "Things must be clear — Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all.”
With lingering questions about Israel's intelligence capability in Gaza, several Hamas officials confirmed that the group had intensified its campaign to crack down on informants for Israel. Each noted the threat that spies posed to the future of arms smuggling.
Mahdy Hamad, a warden at Gaza's largest prison, said that 35 convicted spies were being held at his prison before the war. He noted that during the war Hamas killed as many as 100 suspected spies in an effort to stop the flow of information out of Gaza.
“We had information. We had doubts about some people and we investigated them,” he said.
Tunnels take, on average, four months to build, workers confirmed. Given the ease with which they're built and rebuilt, the responsibility of stopping the flow of arms across the Egypt-Gaza border will likely fall on the shoulders of the Egyptian security forces.
Israel has demanded that Egypt take a more proactive role in securing the border, but so far Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has balked at specific plans laid out by the Israelis, which include allowing a greater foreign troop presence in Egypt to patrol the border.
"They (the Egyptians) told us they won't agree to a force on their side," Haaretz reported an anonymous senior Israeli official as saying on Jan. 10.
"Egypt would accept far more technical assistance," the official added.
The government was reportedly more receptive, though, to a German proposal in which several European states would dispatch technical crews to help the Egyptian military crack down on the tunnels.
But it is unclear how serious Egypt is about securing its border. When the country's government backed Israel and the United States during the military conflict, Arab allies were livid and riots broke out at several Egyptian embassies in the region. Many Egyptians viewed this as a direct threat to Egypt's role as regional powerbroker and mediator.
If Egypt gets tough along the border, Hamas will suffer — as will the thousands of Gazans who depend on the food and other goods that flow through the tunnels each day. And Egypt's reputation in the region will also continue to take a battering.
With the smuggling as transparent as it is in Gaza, the impact of Egypt's efforts will continue to be in plain sight on Gaza's streets in the coming months.
More GlobalPost Dispatches from Theodore May:
Gaza conflict creates another broken generation