On the surface, the Sinai Peninsula's picturesque landscape, coupled with its glimmering coral azure waters and entrancing desert, are often misleading. Concealed beneath the yellow dunes lies an illicit chain of tunnels linking Egypt to the besieged Gaza Strip next door.
"The tunnels are the veins of Gaza, its bloodline," tunnel supplier Fathi El-Nahal told Ahram Online during a clandestine meeting at a Rafah steakhouse. During the meeting, a bright orange crane seemed to be demolishing a tunnel, in line with novel security measures adopted following recent turbulence in the area.
Following a 5 August attack near Egypt's border with Gaza that left 16 Egyptian border guards dead, Egyptian security forces launched 'Operation Eagle,' an ongoing security initiative. Consequently, there has been a shift in attention towards the tunnel network, since the operation aims to clean up the desert underworld – especially Al-Hallal Mountain and other quarters of the region notorious for unlawful activity.
Notably, it is the first time since 1973 that Egypt has launched an aerial and land offensive in the area, given the restrictions laid out in the Camp David peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. The treaty divides Sinai into three areas, and, in each of these areas, Egypt is allowed to deploy only limited numbers of troops and arms.
International accords restricting passage in this unorthodox border land, as well as Israel’s 266-kilometre (165-mile) barrier along its border with Sinai, have inspired various parties to establish tunnel networks as an alternative, clandestine passageway between Egyptian Rafah and Gaza.
In spite of such measures, the organic nature of Sinai's terrain, exhibited by the clandestine tunnels, facilitates illegal endeavours that are difficult to control. The desert sands artfully mask the tunnels, which are said to be in the thousands and facilitate illegal acts – including human trafficking, arms and drug smuggling – and enable criminals to escape conviction.
The tunnels also permit close contact with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and illegitimate terrorist activity.
"Bedouins have secret escape routes via the tunnels, which are built to strategically avoid checkpoints," suggested Arish resident Mohamed Sabry.
"There are around 1,200 tunnels in which all types of illegal activities occur. Government officials from all sides are involved: Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian," asserted political sociologist Said Sadek.
"The tunnels, of which around 300 are functioning, have enabled Bedouin and government officials on all sides to accrue fortunes. Many own an abundance of luxury items," Ahmed Abu Deraa, a local Bedouin journalist from Sheikh Zuweid, told Ahram Online.
His statement was visibly confirmed by the luxury cars and villas displayed in the north Sinai towns and in the distant Gaza landscape.
Sinai expert Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, who has visited the tunnels, describes how Bedouins often form an alliance, collecting funds to build tunnels that can cost around $100,000 each. Such expenses are soon returned, according to Fahmy, given the high returns on smuggling various materials.
"Bedouin sources suggest human trafficking is worth around $50 per person; olives cost about $100 per carton. Animals, such as a tiger or small elephant for the Gaza zoo, cost as much as $20,000," he stated, while acknowledging that the Bedouins he liaised with refuse to permit hostages or suicide bombers through the tunnels. Nonetheless, sending marijuana to Israel, which sells at double the price, is common practice.
"Tunnel owners told me Hamas gets $1,000 tax on each car that goes through the tunnels. The buyer pays me $5,000 a car, or around $8,000 for a big truck, as tunnel rent money, in addition to the car's price," claimed Fahmy.
Arms are one of the most lucrative commodities traded in the clandestine desert veins, associated with events such as the Palestinian intifada in 2000.
The deadly trade was subsequently revived following the Arab uprisings. Sheikh Zuweid is known as a hub for exporting weapons to Gaza, and Al-Hasna and Nakhl are markets for local weapons.
Many Sinai locals blame Mubarak-era security forces for introducing tribes to the lucrative arms trade, which has led to dwindling security.
"They were the first to introduce the Bedouins to arms trafficking," stressed young activist Islam Qwedar, alongside Mohamed Ibrahim Hamad, the son of a tribal leader in Bir Al-Abd. He underlines their preoccupation with the recent influx of weapons from Libya and the resultant effects on national and regional security.
Experts maintain missiles being traded in Sinai's tunnels and subsequently hoarded are more advanced than SAM, Fateh and Grad missiles, which can be used for large-scale operations. In response, Israel's Begin-Sadat Centre drafted a plan for the partial reoccupation of the border zone and intervention in Sinai, which has been ruled out – for the time being – by the right-wing Netanyahu government.
A number of factors have recently affected the tunnel trade, according to experts, namely: greater competition given the increased number of tunnels and volume of quality products allowed by Israeli authorities, as well as higher taxes imposed by Hamas.
In addition, despite the financial benefits provided by these clandestine desert bloodlines, many risks are attached to their use. Regardless of their structural development since their initiation thirty years ago, deaths caused by the disintegration of tunnels and Israeli aerial attacks are not uncommon, observers note.
In view of all the harmful components associated with the tunnels, the constant question for many observers – and even collaborators in the tunnel business – remains, why are authorities keeping Gaza's life support machine switched on?
Notably, various Bedouin tribesmen expressed their shock that the tunnels remained open, despite ongoing talks about flooding them with sand. Some tunnel owners have even offered to help authorities close the tunnels as they have made enough money and thus care little about their closure.
"Destroying the tunnels and establishing a free zone in Sinai would solve the security problem," stated the prosperous tunnel broker El-Nahal, whose home – one of many – overlooks the unsystematic Gaza skyline in the background.
"Authorities are not doing a proper job destroying the tunnels; it is just for show. If they really wanted to destroy them, they could. Resistance would only arise if they attacked the tunnels providing food and medicine," he added.
Accordingly, many experts maintain that other parties do not want the closure of the tunnels, and therefore prohibit it. Local Bedouin journalist Hussein assertively pointed out, during a tribal meeting in Sheikh Zuweid last week, that the building of a lake would destroy the tunnels, but Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood are not in favour of the idea.
Exploitation of Gaza’s system of tunnels by various authorities is evidently a popular viewpoint shared by many.
"The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the Brotherhood's offshoot, do not want total cleaning given the financial benefits they are receiving," insisted sociologist Sadek.
"The Brotherhood made a deal with Hamas not to close all the tunnels," supported Sabry. Observers suggest the tunnels vary in size and quality, often ranging between 100 metres in length to a few kilometres. Some, termed "five star tunnels," allow travellers to travel by car.
"I can organise a trip for you to Gaza by car in the finest tunnel; you will be there within minutes," said El-Nahal, describing superior tunnels as "well lit and ventilated" with some even permitting mobile phone use.
Tunnel entrances differ depending on the material being transported; those for goods have a rope to assist smugglers and a rubber slide to simplify the process, suggested Fahmy, who described the tunnels as "claustrophobic" despite ventilation systems.
"Each tunnel exit is located safely away from the borders to avoid security personnel. It is possible to travel from Egypt by taxi and arrive at one's house in Gaza," stated Arish local Sabry, while claiming that, from Gaza to Egypt, no ID is required; conversely, Egypt to Gaza is licensed by Hamas.
"The price for travelling by tunnel is dependent on nationality. Egyptians pay around $50 to $100; for foreigners, the price is between $300 and $500," he added, saying that ill treatment by the Egyptian government was the motive behind this unlawful covert business.
State neglect in terms of citizenship, development and employment opportunities leads experts and Bedouin to justify the illicit tunnel business, the most lucrative trade in the region. A government report in 2010 highlighted that a quarter of all Sinai's population did not have national ID cards. Furthermore, the Bedouin are also not allowed to own land, serve in the army or profit from local tourism.
"There is no industry or livelihood here, so the mentality has become 'let us make money by any means; everyone else in Egypt is making money, why shouldn’t we?'" explained El-Nehal, a notion supported by local Bedouin Abu Deraa, who also suggests that government negligence vindicates the growth of the black-market tunnel economy.
"It is a chain. Egyptians nationwide are involved. It is unfair to just point the figure at us," stressed El-Nehal, elaborating that the tunnel trade was not restricted to Sinai but extended to Cairo and further afield.
Experts identify primary Islamist factions abusing these hidden bloodlines as: Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that governs the Gaza Strip, along with its military wing the Ezz Al-Din Al-Qassam Brigades.
The other Palestinian movement is identified as Jahafil Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad fi Filastin (formerly known as Al-Tawhid wal Jihad), based in Gaza and accused by Israel of using Sinai as a launch pad for attacks. It is said to be linked with Egyptian jihadist groups such as Takfir Al-Hijra and Salafist Jihadism. Both factions adhere by an extreme Salafist interpretation of Islam with the ultimate goal being the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate.
Although Egyptian authorities, many of whom are accused by analysts of being complicit in the tunnel trade alongside Israeli and Palestinian officials, claim to be cleaning up tunnels, it would seem a more holistic approach is required.
One solution to the tunnel dilemma concerned the establishment of a free zone along the border and the opening of the Rafah border for Palestinians to buy goods and return to Gaza on the same day.
Notably, border regulations, according to Sabry, state that Egyptians are not allowed to Gaza without a license. Correspondingly, Palestinians require a license for work purposes in Egypt. Palestinian women who are sick, over 40, or possess another nationality are allowed to cross, along with men over 60. Also permitted are students and sick children.
"The government should use 2 kilometres of the 14-kilometre Rafah-Gaza border to make a free zone, which would eradicate the illicit tunnel trade and provide jobs for youth," suggested Al-Nehal, who asserted that he would be one of the first to work in the free zone and, accordingly, would happily give up his clandestine work.
The notion of giving Palestinians part of Egyptian land was broadly rejected by residents of Sinai, and sometimes the idea of opening the Rafah borders to facilitate passage to a free zone was met with discontent. Influential religious Bedouin Sheikh Abd Faisal Hamdeen Salaman, leader of Ahla Suna wa Gama, expressed his opposition.
"I do not support opening the Rafah border or giving Palestinians part of Sinai," said the sheikh in his isolated small desert abode. He acts as an influential legal authority among residents of Sheikh Zuweid.
"We should not give Palestinians our land. Regrettably, some Bedouin are discreetly selling our land to Palestinians using illegitimate Bedouin deeds; we are also confronting a population explosion in Gaza," asserted Bedouin activist Said Abdel Hadi of the Sawairka tribe, the biggest tribe in North Sinai.
Another solution proposed was legitimising one tunnel for legal trade, which will be controlled by authorities on both sides, and demolishing the rest.
Based on the words of the former head of security in North Sinai, General Al-Masri, who identified the tunnels as the "greatest hurdle," Ahmed Bakr, Sinai's security chief, clearly has a mammoth task on his hands. Local judge Abdel Hadi suggests collaboration and acknowledging solutions proposed by locals is imperative.
"A protocol agreement between the police and tribes should be created; Bedouin judges selected by the community – not the minister of interior – should be appointed in every police station," affirmed Abdel Hadi from his isolated desert quarters just minutes from the Israeli border.
Worth mentioning also are the widespread pleas being continually echoed from this arid region.
"Sinai people are all perceived as tunnel smugglers and drug lords, which is totally incorrect," stated Nasser Akkar during a recent meeting in Sheikh Zuweid of Sawairka tribe leaders, highlighting the need to create a media committee to project the right image and break stereotypes.