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Egyptian desert a smuggler's paradise

Amid the Gaza conflict and around Egyptian concrete barriers, Bedouins still do a lucrative trade in smuggled goods.

Bedouin loot barbed wire near a police checkpoint on the Egyptian border with Israel Nov. 11, 2008, not long after Egyptian bedouin abducted 25 policemen in the Sinai peninsula and freed them again in a mountainous area. The armed bedouin snatched the police from their vehicle a day after police shot and killed a bedouin man. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

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.