Egyptian desert a smuggler's paradise

Editor's note: Last week's gun battles between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants, which widened into some of the fiercest fighting in the Gaza Strip since Israel's military offensive there last year, served as a reminder of the region's instability. One group that profits from such instability are the Bedouins of Egypt's Sinai desert, as GlobalPost contributor Rebecca Collard reports.

RAFAH, Egypt — Ahmed and Khalil sit on cushions in the living room of a North Sinai mansion flicking through channels of Iraqi music videos and feasting on take-away from a local fish restaurant. Like many area Bedouins, the pair, who asked their real names not be used, make their living smuggling goods from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula into the Gaza Strip.

“We need jobs, money — all the things people need,” says Ahmed dipping bread into a tub of tahina sitting next to a pistol on the carpeted floor. “We don’t love Palestinians, we love money.”

Near the Egypt-Gaza border, newly constructed three-story villas tower over traditional Bedouin homes made of brush. This area of North Sinai, inhabited primarily by traditionally nomadic Bedouin herders and farmers, has long been one of Egypt’s poorest areas.

Now, a new-class of ultra-rich local smugglers cruise the desert in late-model SUVs and pick-ups, occasionally stuffing bills into the hands of the less-fortunate Bedouins who still live among sand dunes on a few dollars per day. Here, smuggling has been a welcome opportunity among otherwise feeble employment prospects.

“My father makes $100 a month,” said Ahmed. “Some months I make $20,000 or $30,000.”

The informal economy that straddles the border provides for thousands in this impoverished region, from those who carve out passages under the border to those responsible for packing and moving goods, as well as farmers who rent out their land for storing Gaza-bound cargo or hosting tunnel openings.

After the end of Israeli occupation in the 1980s, there was optimism and big plans for developing the Sinai Peninsula, said Walid Kazziha, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. There was even talk of diverting Nile water to Sinai to fuel agriculture and industry development.

“That would have provided opportunity … to develop the area, but that didn’t happen,” said Kazziha. “It would have changed the situation. People wouldn’t be engaged in illicit trade if they had better ways of conducting their lives.”

Israel withdrew from Sinai, and the border between Egypt and the then-still-Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip was placed through the middle of Rafah city. Locals eventually began moving goods between Egyptian Rafah and Gazan Rafah.

Khalil, who has been involved in the illicit trade for almost a decade, said for years it was mostly weapons making the below-surface journey. He would earn about $300 per Kalashnikov he brought into Gaza. The Russian-made assault rifle was worth about $700 on the Egyptian side of the border, but could fetch double that in the conflict-embroiled, coastal territory.

Similar mark-up on bullets and explosives made weapons smuggling very lucrative for North Sinai residents.

“Now Gaza has enough weapons,” said Khalil. But explosives and arms still flow into the Strip along with dramatically increased quantities of other goods, keeping smugglers busy.

Since Israel imposed its crippling blockade on the Gaza Strip, after Hamas took control of the territory two years ago, the tunnels have become a lifeline — carrying food, toiletries, appliances, car parts and even livestock in to the isolated Gazans. About 80 percent of the
goods imported to Gaza now come through the tunnels, according to the World Bank.

Many of the goods that flow through the tunnels are Egyptian, but others come from abroad; Israel says the weapons that reach Gaza come from Sudan, Iraq and some areas of Libya.

The area around Egyptian Rafah has become a virtually lawless borderland where security forces look the other way for a bit of cash and out of fear of locals. Egyptian police have been known to lose run-ins with Bedouins. Early last month, Bedouins shot dead two policemen as they freed eight suspects held by Egyptian security forces.

On a drive between El Arish and Rafah, Khalil pulls off the pavement in easy sight of a checkpoint, but the police manning the station ahead don’t move. “If they stop us, I just show them this,” says Ahmed pulling out his pistol and casually pointing it toward the window from the passenger seat of the car.

Egypt’s efforts to stop smuggling are hindered by restriction in the 1978-peace agreement between the two countries, which limits the number of soldiers Egypt is allowed to have in certain zones near the Israeli border to 750. “And, when we say 750, how committed are they
being so far away from the center?” asked Kazziha. “How committed are they to protecting Israeli borders?”

Israel has repeatedly bombed the tunnels, but it takes as little as a week to repair the damage, says smugglers, and profits available to those able to transport goods make it worth the risk.

“At the moment illicit trade is carried out by several elements,” said Kazziha. “You have the tribes and you have the Palestinians, involved for the for national objective, and … security people who turn a blind eye because they make deals and have benefits.”

In a last-ditch effort to stop the flow, Egypt is now constructing an underground wall along the area where most of the smuggling takes place, threatening the locals’ lucrative trade. Egyptian officials say the wall is necessary to secure its borders and has rebuffed accusations that it is cooperating with the Israelis to further isolate Gaza. The steel wall will reach 30 to 40 yards below the surface and stretch six miles.

But it is unclear if this wall will stop the movement of goods.

With few other sources of income, and some Gazans willing to pay top-dollar for otherwise-unavailable items, it is possible the Sinai smugglers will find a way to circumvent the wall to keep the cash flowing.

“The tribesmen are armed, the Palestinians are armed and the security elements that co-operate … are also armed,” says Kazziha. “How to do you break that without development? It’s very difficult.”