Background Profits Drive Smuggling in Rafah

Two months ago, a furious crowd attacked Palestinian Housing Minister Abdul Rahman Hamad as he arrived in Rafah at the head of a Palestinian Authority delegation to examine damages caused by house demolitions.

Armed militants fired shots in the air when they spotted the committee members heading toward the Rafah governor's office. The gunmen went on to sabotage the entourage's vehicles, eventually driving its members out of the area.

The gunmen were members of militant groups in Rafah, mainly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who wished to bash the PA for its helplessness in dealing with residents who have lost their homes and thereby gain the support of the local population - which is also the goal of Hamas and Islamic Jihad charity funds. This was not an isolated incident. A week before, a furious crowd had attacked the vehicle of Ramzi Khoury, PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's bureau chief, as he was returning from Egypt to Rafah though the VIP crossing. This incident was also characterized by "angry residents" protesting the loss of their homes during an Israel Defense Forces operation on the Philadelphi Road last October. Hamas and Jihad were also behind that demonstration.

The residents are truly angry at the situation and at the lack of anyone to help them. Housing projects by UNRWA and by Arab groups are just a drop in the ocean. The various militant organizations know this and exploit the public discontent to gain sympathy - by bashing the PA on one hand, and by providing help via their charity institutions on the other. The militants are joined by the heads of the main families behind the smuggling industry, mainly the Abu Samhadana and Abu Rish families, both of Bedouin origin.

Many groups are interested in gaining the public's sympathy. There are the smugglers, who make huge sums of money, and there are the clients - various PA security organizations, businesses in the Gaza Strip and the militant groups themselves. But all of these groups share a joint interest: They are all interested in the area remaining a no man's land where chaos rules and no one can take over and stop the smuggling. The well-being of the area's residents is of no genuine concern to anyone.

Clothes, cigarettes, alcohol, vehicle parts and prostitutes have been smuggled through the tunnels for many years. Whole sectors in the Strip make their living from the smuggling industry. Arms smuggling, a relatively marginal enterprise before the intifada, has grown considerably as demand from the militant groups has grown.

The intifada, and even more the smugglers' financial interests, are the main reasons why this industry will never be destroyed. Profits of tens of thousands of dollars for each delivery; profits for the owners of the houses under which the tunnels are dug, including compensation in case a tunnel is exposed and the house demolished; and the clients' greed all ensure that in the absence of any other source of income in Rafah, the phenomenon will continue.