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RAFAH - On the eve of the intifada, there were five to seven tunnels for smuggling Egyptian contraband, but more than 30 tunnels have been built over the years since September 2000, according to a Rafah merchant who ran smuggling tunnels to bring in merchandise from Egypt.

He says the large profits from the smuggling of weapons - mostly Kalashnikovs - and ammunition to Rafah "to whoever wants to buy" has overcome fears of arrest, house demolitions or getting killed.

However, he adds, Israel's military pressure and the steps taken by Egypt against the smugglers make things very difficult for them. The proof of that, he says,is the high price of Kalashnikovs, currently between NIS 25-29 per bullet - and there's a lack of ammunition in Rafah. Indeed, people in Rafah say the armed men are being very careful about every shot they take.

The tunnels are dug at night, with short-handled hoes, says the merchant, and it takes about five months to dig an 80-meter tunnel. A critical element in the digging is getting rid of the dirt without the neighbors or Palestinian Authority officials noticing. Ever since the Israel Defense Forces demolished the neighborhoods along the border, he says, widening the Philadelphi corridor, a tunnel can take a year to dig.

Digging and smuggling are family businesses. The tunnel owners employ their sons and young relatives to dig, says the merchant, so the direct costs are not very high.

According to the merchant, the Egyptians have stiffened sentences for smugglers and tunnel operators, and he knows of people who have been sentenced to 25 years in Egyptian prison for smuggling. Therefore, the contacts with the merchants on the other side are conducted very cautiously, and often the true identity of the contact person on the other side is not known. According to the merchant, there are no operating tunnels nowadays.

Because of the activity of tanks in the border area in recent years, the diggers have deepened the shaft to as much as 13 meters below the surface, for fear the tunnels will collapse under the weight of armored vehicles. Two and a half years ago, two sons of one of the most well-known of the smugglers were killed while digging a new tunnel: actually, they drowned when a water main was struck and the tunnel filled with water.

A Palestinian security source says that recently the tunnel diggers have been using machinery for the digging, which has greatly accelerated the pace of the work, reducing a tunnel's construction to a few weeks. But another Palestinian security source expresses his doubts about that.

The IDF says that since September 2000, more than 90 tunnels have been located and shut down. But both the merchant and other Palestinian sources say that often, the IDF counts an existing tunnel twice or more times, because a new shaft is dug to the actual tunnel once the IDF closes the original shaft. The PA is known to have closed seven tunnels in recent years and arrested those involved in tunnel digging.

The merchant, a PA security official, and a member of the Popular Resistance Committee, all told Haaretz that the tunnels are too narrow to smuggle large amounts of weapons or large weapons through the tunnels. "If it were possible to smuggle a Katyusha, we would have used them by now," says the Popular Resistance Committeeman. All three say Israel deliberately inflates the importance of the tunnels for smuggling. The tunnels are about 80 centimeters wide and 80 centimeters high. Only thin youths, says the heavyset merchant, can dig the tunnels and move through them.