Aug 08, 2008 15:12 EST
The monkeys and lions were drugged, tossed into cloth sacks and dragged through smuggling tunnels under the border between Egypt and the besieged Gaza Strip before ending up in a dusty Gaza zoo. Stocked almost entirely with smuggled animals, the "Heaven of Birds and Animals Zoo" is a sign of Gaza's ever-expanding tunnel industry.
Dozens of passages are believed to snake under the border, serving as a mainstay of the local economy and a way to smuggle in everything from cigarettes to lingerie to automatic weapons.
And smugglers say a new effort by Egypt to blow up the passages will have little effect on the flow of goods.
Gaza's commercial trade was literally forced underground after the Islamic militant Hamas seized the coastal territory last summer, prompting neighboring Israel and Egypt to restrict movement through commercial crossings.
While Israel has allowed more goods in since a June truce with Hamas, it is not enough to meet Gaza's needs. Tunnel smugglers fill the gaps, bringing in contraband drugs and guns and more mundane items like frilly underwear and laptop computers, as well as exotic animals like the lion and lioness that pace in a cage at the Rafah zoo.
They were purchased as cubs from Egypt for $3,000 each, drugged and dragged through a tunnel in sacks. Zoo manager Shadi Fayiz said he went through a middleman to put in his order.
At the small zoo, where umbrellas shade battered couches, there is a parrot who was slipped through a tunnel in a cage. He can ask for a kiss in Arabic, startling veiled Gazan women walking by, Fayiz said.
Two monkeys were bought together as babies. So were three spindly legged gazelles, one of whom bit several tunnel smugglers when they forgot to sedate it, Fayiz said.
All told, his animals cost over $40,000. Fayiz opened shop in June.
"Without the tunnels, I couldn't have done this," the 23-year-old said.
Egypt, under Israeli pressure, has ratcheted up its efforts in recent weeks to destroy the passages, blasting tunnel entrances on its side. But smugglers say they can easily build new ones.
"You can't kill a snake," said a middleman who goes by Abu Mohammed, referring to the passages by their Gazan slang name, "hayyeh," the Arabic word snake.
Like other traders interviewed by The Associated Press, he declined to give his full name, fearing retribution from Egypt and tax demands from Gaza's Hamas rulers.
Gaza traders come to his office in Rafah with lists of products — food, clothes, motor oil. He contacts Egyptian traders to find them, then shops for the cheapest tunnel to haul them through, ensuring a bigger profit.
"Some tunnels want $100 a box, some just $70. You have to compare prices," he said.
Such competition in the smuggling market was unthinkable before the Hamas takeover, when there were fewer passages and overland crossings still worked.
Rows of lacy underwear hang in Abu Mohammed's shop, left over from a previous shipment. They were big sellers through the summer, when most Gaza weddings take place. This season, traders are ordering nuts for Ramadan, an upcoming Muslim holy month when the devout fast throughout the day and usually snack through the night.
Traders estimate around 100 tunnels now run under the border, with the number rising since the Hamas takeover.
Israel has demanded that Egypt block weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel's main concern about the current truce is that Hamas will use it to rearm. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he believed Egypt was devoting more energy to destroying the passageways, but also said Hamas was exploiting the calm to strengthen its military wing.
Earlier this month, five smugglers were killed when Egypt blew up a tunnel exit, suffocating them inside. An Egyptian border official said authorities destroy about a tunnel a day.
In early August, Egyptian border troops uncovered a 2,400-foot underground pipeline used to smuggle fuel into Gaza. Black market fuel has been a lucrative product in Gaza since Israel began reducing supplies to the territory to pressure militants to halt their fire at Israeli border communities.
Tunnel traders, meanwhile, say Egyptian efforts to destroy tunnels might delay shipments but won't halt them — smugglers can quickly dig new tunnel entrances by branching out from the main passage.
It's unlikely overland transport will soon replace the subterranean traffic. Hamas says a full opening of Gaza's border crossings must be part of any truce deal, but Israel refuses until there is progress in talks on the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, says tunnels can't provide a solution to Gaza's woes.
"A tunnel can bring in a mobile phone, but it can't bring in raw materials," such as cement, building materials, gasoline and other fuel, which are all in short supply, said Abu Zuhr. "Because of that Gaza is paralyzed."
But zoo manager Fayiz praises the smugglers' ingenuity.
"It's just a matter of time until they make a tunnel an elephant can walk through"
Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from Rafah, Egypt.