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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.

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.”