RAFAH, Gaza Strip – In houses along the steel wall separating Gaza and Egypt, the lights are flickering “” a sign that smugglers are digging tunnels below, their powerful drills weakening the flow of electricity.
Tunneling is the fastest-growing business in this impoverished border town, and one of the biggest obstacles to any lasting Israeli-Palestinian truce.
Since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip a year ago, the number of tunnels for smuggling weapons, drugs and other contraband has more than doubled, evolving into an underground maze clawed out of Gaza’s soft soil.
The largely unhindered weapons influx also heightens the threat of civil war between the rival Hamas and Fatah movements in Gaza and is souring Israel’s ties with neighboring Egypt.
Israel says anti-tank missiles, tons of explosives and thousands of rifles have reached Gaza in the past year. Palestinian militants say they have already imported longer-range Katyusha rockets “” they fired one earlier this year “” plus the means to upgrade their homemade rockets to reach deeper into Israel.
A Palestinian security official says cordite, a highly explosive propellant for anti-aircraft weapons, has come through the tunnels, in one case blowing up on the buyer and killing two people in October.
The Palestinians have done nothing, despite a promise by President Mahmoud Abbas to shut down the weapons pipeline as part of a Gaza cease-fire reached last month, said Israeli government spokeswoman Miri Eisin. The smuggling, Eisin added, could easily bring down the truce.
“We don’t build a cease-fire on luck,” she said.
Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib said the arms buildup has fueled anarchy in the coastal strip. He noted that expired medicines and illegal drugs are also flooding Gaza.
After Israel’s pullout, Egyptian and Palestinian security forces were to have deployed to stop the smuggling, but enforcement has been spotty.
Israel wants Egypt to do more. Egypt says it’s trying, but needs more equipment and personnel.
Palestinian security is also reluctant to move against the powerful clans and militant groups that operate the tunnels. Many of its members have ties to these groups.
Israel raided Gaza after Hamas-allied militants tunneled into Israel in June, killed two soldiers and captured one. The military said it uncovered about 30 tunnels during
Uri Dromi, a former Israeli government spokesman, said the smuggling is fueling Israeli fears that the militants are using the cease-fire to continue arming.
“On the surface, there is a cease-fire,” he said, “but underground they keep building tunnels.”