Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Rafah Experience

On the 30th anniversary of Egypt and Israel's monumental peace treaty, I found myself in a holding cell in Rafah. I went to Egypt with the goal of reporting on the renaissance of the well-known tunnel economy, post Gaza War. How many tunnels did Israel destroy? How many are left? How has the Gaza War changed the reality on the ground, or underground? Is Rafah back in business? These were some of the questions I was hoping to ask a cross-section of locals, but never got a chance to.

While filming a random street scene, a plain-clothes officer snatched my video camera out of my hands. Suddenly another white-shirted guy asked me for my passport. I reluctantly handed it to him, and queried as him to what I did wrong. I never got an answer.

Instead, they whisked us away (me, a fellow journalist, and our Egyptian driver) to some sort of detention facility in the bowels of Rafah. We were told to sit in a drab, tan colored holding room that reeked of stale urine. We were interrogated, then dismissed back to the room. We waited a couple hours staring at the one fluorescent light bulb surrounded by flies, and were interrogated again. They made me play back my footage to make sure I hadn't actually filmed something worthwhile. They dismissed us back to the urine room. I fidgeted uncomfortably in my wooden chair. I adjusted to sit cross-legged, and was told to sit with feet firmly on the floor.

My wardens were the "Muhabarat", the Egyptian secret police entrusted with maintaining Egypt's unique sense of order, emboldened by the Orwellian “state of emergency” imposed on the country since the 80s. I didn't bother to ask for my one free phone call or an Arabic reading of my Miranda rights. I just felt grateful that I hadn't been blindfolded like my poor Egyptian driver, or that I wasn't in a less benign country like North Korea, where a couple of my journalist colleagues from Current TV have been imprisoned recently on trumped up charges.

Before the arrest, we did get one interesting group interview with local shopkeepers, all in their mid-twenties, who were only willing to talk off-camera. While denying any involvement in the tunnel economy, they imparted that Israel had destroyed very little and that the tunnels are in fact operating as usual. “Life here is back to normal. When you see a fancy car in Rafah, it means that it’s owner is also a tunnel owner,” said one of the guys. When I asked how they know so much about the tunnel business they are not affiliated with, the answer was whispered through a Cheshire cat grin. “Everyone here knows about the tunnels. The police also know, and for 500 (Egyptian) pounds [100 dollars], they don’t see them.”

One of the guys was a Palestinian whose family hails from a village near modern day Ashkelon. His brother is living just across the border in Gaza. They don’t see each other very often. “I am happy that Hamas took over,” he said to me discreetly. “The other guys (Fatah) were too corrupt.” The young man, who asked to remain anonymous, makes his living from a sprinkler and fertilizer shop. He adamantly denied any involvement in the smuggling business, claiming that his storefront is not just a front. I grilled him, noting that the barren Sinai desert isn’t exactly known for its agricultural prowess. Where are all your customers? Or is today just a slow day? Why not benefit from an underground distribution channel with a million and a half desperate customers? If your huge stockpile of potassium nitrate was being used for Qassam rocket propulsion and not for tomatoes, you wouldn’t risk it all by telling someone like me, would you?

A reporter must burrow to find out the truth in Rafah. What you see above ground is not an accurate representation of what you would see down below. It would take months of investigation to exhume the complete, uncomfortable truth, which would be to learn just how far the trail of money goes and into whose pockets. The fact that the Egyptian local authorities are in on it is an assumption based on various pieces of circumstantial evidence. The most damning piece of evidence is the fact that hundreds of tunnels continue to operate in one of the most militarized areas in Egypt, right under their noses. Tunnel smuggling is not like other forms of smuggling, where the pick up points and locations can change. These tunnels are in fixed locations in a specific area in a small town. In all likelihood, the local law enforcement officials know where each tunnel is located, but choose to look the other way for some reason.

The question is whether the money trail goes all the way back to Cairo, or if this can just be chalked up to local corruption. The Egyptian government gets over 2 billion dollars in military and financial aid from the US a year, and probably do not need extra pocket money. If push came to shove, and the US threatened to reduce or eliminate its annual coffer padding, I wonder if Cairo could close the tunnels. Egypt is already seen as the Arab version of Uncle Tom for its pro US stance. Would closing the tunnels further diminish their reputation on the collective Arab street? Are the tunnels a symbolic, diplomatic overture to the Arab world?

The tunnels certainly do represent the bind Egypt has been in since signing a peace treaty with Israel. Their fragmented tunnel policy reflects the divided loyalty of Egypt’s national soul, whose brain tells her to respect the peace treaty with Israel but whose heart tells her to support the Palestinians in any way possible. In order to maintain the guise that it supports both sides, the tunnels must teeter on the seesaw of legality.

In Hamas-run Gaza, it is a different story. The tunnels are not just legal, but sacrosanct. They are the solitary avenue for getting weapons and ammunition, underground arteries carrying the lifeblood of Hamas-style resistance. They are a source of pride for all Palestinians who view them as the one aspect of life untouched by the Israelis. If Gaza is an outdoor version of Shawshank prison, these tunnels are redemption. They are the closest thing Gaza has to normal free trade, proof that the Israeli blockade is futile, and wormholes to the world. Tunnel owners are like regular business owners, who must register their deed and pay taxes to the Hamas government. In the eyes of Hamas, the thriving tunnel economy represents a victory over Israel, and they want the world to see it. Thus, foreign journalists have no trouble accessing them.

Yet in Egypt, less than 100 yards away, it is a different story. The same tunnels that have been shown countless times to reporters on the Palestinian side are off limits on the Egyptian side. Here, tunnels are a shadowy semi-legal enterprise. Like any self-respecting mafia, the police make sure to harass tunnel owners just enough to keep them on edge and keep the “baksheesh” (hush money) flowing, but they don’t dare shut them down entirely.

The two Western journalists walking around on street level clearly upset the delicate balance in Rafah. The same cops that arrested us could have just as easily arrested the hundreds of smugglers who walk the streets freely. But unlike smuggling, committing journalism is frowned upon in these parts.

After waiting nervously in the squalid room for a total of six hours, the saga finally ended. Just before dusk, they called us again into the office. They instructed me to delete two 10-second shots of policemen, and then, anticlimactically, we were free to go. We paid our taxi driver generously for his trouble, and asked him to take us out of town as quickly as possible.

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