RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Rafah's biggest industry is back in business: Gazans are rebuilding the network of underground smuggling tunnels crisscrossing the Egyptian border that were pummeled in a recent Israeli offensive, restoring the illicit conduit for consumer goods and weapons so crucial to Hamas rule.
The 12-kilometer (eight-mile) slice of land at the Gaza Strip's southern tip is humming around the clock with workers carting in cement, bricks, gravel and scaffolding. The quick rebound has raised questions about how much damage Israel inflicted on the tunnels during last month's eight-day air offensive.
Anwar Abu Lebdeh and seven other workers were laying bricks on a recent day to rebuild the entrance to a 500-meter (550-yard) tunnel battered by an Israeli airstrike last month. Nearby, workers hauled cement sacks on their shoulders, and a bulldozer lifted gravel onto a nearby truck. After loading up at tunnel sites, trucks lumbered over to Hamas government points to pay taxes on their cargo.
"It's our source of life, this is the only job we could find. I have been working here for five years," said Abu Lebdeh, 24, who had to slog through mud left by heavy rain to get the job done.
The tunnel industry has become key to Gaza's economy since Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the territory after Hamas seized power there in 2007.
The tunnels ferry in a wide range of items besides essentials, including Chinese motorcycles, farm and zoo animals, appliances — and large Iranian rockets that can hit Tel Aviv.
Responding to months of daily rocket salvos from Gaza, last month Israel unleashed its air force, starting with an airstrike that killed Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari. In eight days, the Israeli military carried out more than 1,500 airstrikes on militant targets, including rocket-launching sites, weapons storehouses and dozens of the roughly 500 smuggling tunnels operating under the short border.
Israel claimed it "successfully targeted 140 smuggling tunnels in order to impair Hamas weapons smuggling capabilities." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week told reporters that the offensive had "dramatically reduced" the Hamas arsenal.
Hamas has also claimed victory. Despite losing dozens of fighters, Gaza militants managed to fire some 1,500 rockets into Israel during the violence, hitting the Tel Aviv area several times and ending with a heavy barrage on the last day before an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took hold.
It remains unclear how hard the smuggling industry was hit. Hamas estimates Israel bombed 60 percent of the tunnels, said government spokesman Ihab Ghussein. Some were damaged and quickly repaired. Others were flattened.
Tunnel operators say dozens remain out of commission, but they are quickly rebuilding them. The Israeli army acknowledges that smuggling has resumed, though it would not say whether this includes new weapons.
Tunnel operators, pointing off into the distance, said there are tunnels reserved exclusively for Hamas shipments, presumably weapons.
Evidence of the vast amounts of weaponry in the tiny territory came after Israel's offensive.
For the first-ever visit to Gaza over the weekend of the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, thousands of masked Hamas militants deployed throughout Gaza to protect his convoy, brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles and anti-aircraft weaponry.
The tunnels run underground from Gaza to houses on the Egyptian side of the border. While Egypt has launched periodic crackdowns on weapons smuggling, smugglers say the Egyptians generally ignore the movement of construction materials, fuel and consumer goods. There was no immediate comment from Egypt.
The smuggling tunnel business has been around for at least 15 years, but it got a major boost when Israel and Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak clamped the borders shut after Hamas seized control of Gaza from the forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007. Israel also imposed a naval blockade, saying it was needed to prevent weapons from entering the territory.
After an Israeli commando attack on a blockade-busting flotilla killed nine Turkish activists in May 2010, Israel was forced to significantly ease the overland restrictions. It allows most consumer products in through its cargo crossing with Gaza, excluding what it calls "dual-use" items that Hamas might be able to use for fortifications or other purposes
That includes most building materials. Israel says militants could use cement to build bunkers and metal rods to build weapons. Israel also bans most exports and maintains its naval blockade.
After the November fighting, Israel and Hamas began indirect, Egyptian-led talks over new border arrangements. The militants want Israel to lift what remains of its blockade. In return, Israel demands an end to arms smuggling into Gaza. The talks promise to be difficult, and no decisions have been made, though contacts continue.
As part of these talks, Ghussein, the Hamas spokesman, said his government wants Egypt to expand a passenger terminal in Rafah to handle cargo as well. This would replace the tunnels, he said, and reduce Gaza's reliance on Israeli crossings.
Although Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent movement of Hamas, it has not thrown open the border, fearful of alienating its top aid patron, the U.S. A senior Hamas official said Egypt also has linked an expansion of Rafah to reconciliation between the rival Palestinian factions.
During his visit to Gaza, Mashaal vowed that his movement would continue its armed struggle "to retake Palestine," including Israel, "inch by inch."
Given the many obstacles to Palestinian reconciliation and the deep hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the smuggling tunnels will likely continue to operate.
At the border with Egypt, a man who would identify himself only as Alaa said he was six meters (yards) short of completing a new, 20-meter (20-yard) tunnel.
"That's my Egyptian partner, we own the tunnel and share the profits," he said, pointing to a two-story house on the Egyptian side. He declined to give his full name, fearing for his safety if he discussed the illicit trade.
Workers at another tunnel were loading a truck with cooking gas canisters, others with car parts, and still others with canned food.