Remember, war takes a human as well as monetary toll

MILITARY insurrections cost money says Matthew Levitt, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. Levitt, who previously served as deputy assistant secretary for intelligence and analysis at the Treasury Department, is the author of “Hamas: Politics, Charity and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad”.

By Claude Salhani

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Published: Thu 5 Jul 2007, 8:42 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Indeed, conflicts come at a cost. Besides the human toll, there is the more mundane responsibility of having “to pay salaries, procure weapons, manufacture rockets, buy help from local crime families, bribe opponents, print leaflets and banners and produce media propaganda.” And points out Levitt, in the case of Hamas in Gaza, they even had to order hats and bandanas, and to pay for them. So where did Hamas find the money in spite of an international economic siege imposed on Gaza? According to Levitt, Hamas was so strapped for funds that its leaders resorted to smuggling suitcases of Iranian cash into Gaza across the border with Egypt.”

The answer, Levitt tells us lies in the city of Rafah, or as he puts it, the answer lies under the city. One might be tempted to add, the answer comes from the light at the end of the tunnel. Better make that tunnels. Levitt calls them “smuggling tunnels.” Those are typically built inside houses on the Gaza side of the Egyptian border by Gaza crime groups “more interested in profit than ideology,” says Levitt. The tunnels then connect with other houses on the Egyptian side of the border, burrowing under the border posts where closed circuit television cameras and international observers monitor the crossing. Obviously, they remain powerless when it comes to monitoring what goes on underneath their feet. To detect the tunnels authorities have deployed sonar systems. “Egyptian and Israeli authorities have discovered tunnels dug as deep as 98 feet below ground in an effort to avoid sonar detection,” says Levitt, who describes some tunnels as having air ducts, electricity and lighting. The more sophisticated tunnels have “rails and wagons to help smuggle heavy objects.” The search for tunnels by authorities is a cat and mouse game. When an entryway is found and sealed, the smugglers simply dig a new hole to connect them to the midsections which remain intact.

The smugglers then rent out the tunnels to Hamas or any other group who can dish up a few thousand dollars for a night. They are then free to smuggle anything they want in or out of Gaza. Levitt writes that according to declassified US intelligence reports the “Hamas political bureau, headquartered in Damascus under the leadership of Khalid Mishal and Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzook, has long raised funds to arm militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.” Weapons for Hamas have been smuggled overland into the West Bank from Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, by sea into Gaza, and underground through the Rafah tunnels. “In recent months, Iran has been funding these operations,” says Levitt.

Smuggling across the borders between Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Israel is not new, and neither is the cooperation between the Israeli and Egyptian crime syndicates. Shortly after the 1979 Camp David accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin under the auspices of President Jimmy Carter, an unusual crime wave struck Israel. It centered on the theft of hundreds of Mercedes 600s, the fancy stretch-limo used by many Israeli taxi drivers. The theft of cars on such a scale was unprecedented in Israel. With the country then still technically at war with all its neighbours –- Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Egyptians –- and in such a geographically small area, car thefts were an extremely rare occurrence in Israel. Israeli police were baffled. Hundreds of cars do not simply disappear into the ground. Ah, but in this case they did just that. After Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty by which Israel was to return the Sinai to Egypt, members of an Israeli organised crime group began stealing the cars which they then drove to the Sinai still under Israeli control. The cars were tightly wrapped in plastic and buried in the desert, sometimes more than 50 at a time. Weeks later when that part of the Sinai reverted back to Egyptian rule, members of an Egyptian organised crime syndicate would uncover the cars and sell them in Egypt.

It was only when Egyptian police started to notice that hundreds of Mercedes stretch limos operating as taxis around the country and they were able to put two and two together. Back to the present Levitt points out that “perhaps most disturbingly is the funding Hamas continues to receive through its charitable and social welfare wing.” Particularly frustrating for law enforcement agencies is Hamas’ ability to transfer large sums of money into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that in spite of the United States and the European Union designating the Islamist group as a “terrorist group.” To get around the sanctions Hamas uses its charity committees and social organisations, according to Levitt. “Mixing funds across its political, charitable and militant wings, Hamas supports its Executive Force militia and Izzidin al-Qassam Brigade terror cells under a veil of political and humanitarian legitimacy.”

The author of the report concludes that with Hamas now in control of Gaza, “it is even more critical to close the two loopholes that enabled the movement to supply and fund its Gaza coup — the Rafah tunnel smuggling and the funding through the Hamas social service network.”

But no sooner will one entry point into the tunnels be sealed up than the Islamists will manage to find another way in or out. And no sooner that authorities arrest or shut down one other social services, than another will pop up almost as rapidly.

While neither Egypt, Israel nor the Palestinian Authority should give up police efforts to shut down the tunnels, in the long run they are literally fighting against grains of sand.

The answer, in the long run is to work towards a peaceful solution for the Middle East. Only at that point will the tunnels become obsolete.

Claude Salhani is International editor and a political analyst with United Press International in Washington, DC. He may be contacted at

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