Little light at end of tunnel smuggling

RAFAH - Even some rugged tunnel smugglers who profit from Gaza's blockaded borders say they'd rather import legally through open crossings than risk Israeli bombing raids and shaft collapses.

As the world's top diplomats gathered in neighbouring Egypt this week and pledged more than US$4.4 billion ($8.7 billion) for war-ravaged Gaza, ordinary people - from the smugglers to housewives and shopkeepers - clamoured for open borders, not handouts.

"I want a ceasefire and open borders. Crossings are better than tunnels," said 22-year-old Abu Mahmoud, leaning over a tunnel shaft as workers below tried to clear a 100m stretch collapsed by an Israeli air strike.

The donors' conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik gave a rare opportunity for the international community to review its Gaza policy.

The closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the violent Hamas takeover of the territory in June 2007, failed to topple the Islamic militants. Instead, it deepened poverty and fostered militancy.

During its three-week military offensive in Gaza, Israel tried to halt rocket attacks from Gaza on Israeli border towns, but stopped short of trying to bring down Hamas.

With the militants still in power, but Israel leaving destruction in its wake, donor countries now have to find a way to rebuild Gaza.

International aid officials have said reconstruction is possible only with open borders.

But Israel and Egypt have set conditions, including a complicated prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, and reconciliation between Hamas and its moderate West Bank rivals, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

At the upscale Delice Cafe in Gaza City, speeches from the conference were broadcast live on a TV, but patrons didn't pay much attention.

"I don't think we can derive hope from such a meeting," said civil engineering student Wassim Jaradat, 24. "I don't think any immediate results will be seen on the ground."

The Israeli offensive destroyed or damaged some 15,000 homes, according to Palestinian estimates. At the conference, Abbas was seeking at least US$2.8 billion in new aid.

Nearly double that amount was pledged, and Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah deemed the conference a success.

In Gaza City, car parts dealer Nayef Masharawi, 60, said it was encouraging that top officials were meeting to talk about Gaza's future. He said the blockade had been bad for business, noting that a gallon of Egyptian motor oil bought from smugglers cost nearly twice as much as the superior product he used to import from Israel.

His last shipment from Israel arrived in May 2007, a month before the Hamas takeover.

The shopkeeper said he had fond memories of the 1970s when he would drive from Gaza City to his supplier in the Israeli port city of Haifa, without borders or checkpoints.

Housewife Sulafa Ayyad said she followed the donors' conference on TV, hoping for new leads on claiming compensation for damage to her two-storey home in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighbourhood.

The house, built with savings from her husband Ibrahim's years as a labourer in Israel, had been hit by bullets and shrapnel during the Israeli offensive.

Ayyad, 33, said that so far the family had received only US$200 from a neighbourhood welfare committee.

"I am so glad that the world supports us, but I voice my hope that all the promises and pledges will reach the people who were affected by the war," she said.

Gaza's desperation is perhaps most keenly felt in the border town of Rafah, near Egypt, where hundreds of young men report to work every day in smuggling tunnels.

Since the December 27 start of the Israeli offensive, going underground has turned into a suicide mission.

Israeli warplanes keep bombing tunnels, even after the January 18 ceasefire, because smugglers bring in not only consumer goods, but also weapons and cash for Hamas.

On Monday, five workers died when a tunnel collapsed from heavy rains.

Yet, there are few jobs to be had in a bleak economy.

A 25-year-old tunnel digger said he went s to work even if there had been been air strikes. He was drawn by danger pay of US$300, compared to the normal salary of US$100 for a quiet day.

One of the tunnel diggers was Ahmed Abu Samhadaneh, 20, a second-year university student. He had supported his parents and seven siblings with tunnel work for the past year. Abu Samhadaneh was killed in Monday's tunnel collapse.

- AP

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