The Sinai Insurgency Part 5; The Underground Economy

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In 2016 Hamas deployed several hundred fighters to the Gaza border as part of a deal reached with Egypt to prevent Wilayat Sinai from entering the strip. Hamas has a complicated relationship with the Egyptian-Gaza border crossing. This conduit has proved to be the life blood of the Gazan economy, as well as a source of violence on several occasions, such as the attacks in 2017 that killed 26.1.Adam Rasgon, “Hamas: Increased Security Along Gaza-Sinai Frontier After Deadly Attack”: Jerusalem Post In this article, we will explore the role of the illicit economy in the instability of the Sinai, and how illegal trade brings fortune to some and pain to others.

In a combination of electoral victory matched with military occupation, the Islamic Resistance Movement of Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The only recognized government before then was that of the Western-backed Fatah movement. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, Hamas won a majority of the seats, and Fatah attempted to take control of the strip. In the following conflict, Hamas seized control of Gaza and ousted the Fatah officials. While the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, dismissed the Hamas-led PA government and outlawed Hamas, the latter secured its position. In response to the seizure of the West Bank, Western officials made economic support for Hamas dependent on recognition of Israel, along with a commitment to nonviolence. Hamas rejected. This rejection has left Gaza under a state of military occupation and economic embargo that has lasted for over a decade. This embargo has motivated a small and historically smuggling-based economy to become an economic machine that isolates the local Bedouin population from the state, and allies them with local militants.2.Azzam Tamimi, “Hamas a History From Within”. Olive Branch3.Ciara Nugent, “The Gaza Strip Is Only 25 Miles Long. Here’s How It Became the Center of Decades of Conflict”: Time4.“Guide: Why are Israel and the Palestinians fighting over Gaza?”: BBC

First, let us discuss what we mean by a smuggling economy. Smuggling in the Sinai includes a wide variety of goods and locations: the tunnel economy that is the basis of life in Gaza, smuggling along border fences or by running checkpoints, and the broader culture that surrounds these activities. The bulk of smuggled objects are consumer goods that can be regularly purchased at a Walmart or on Amazon, such as cell phones, tires, and oil. Along with common consumer goods are such illicit items as weapons, drugs, and even people, often victims of human trafficking circuits. Any item being traded is considered as being “smuggled”, however, and the illegalisation of alternative consumer trade only fuels the rejection of the Egyptian state by the local population.

Before we look at the specifics, it is important to understand what the local population understands smuggling to be. Smuggling often takes place in traditional Bedouin societies, and while it is not officially legalised it is culturally regulated through tribal elders who form the social and juridical framework for smuggling operations, while the smuggling itself is mostly done by younger men. All of these local tribes have existed long before the modern nation-states of the region were born. For them, the random drawing of borders is just lines on a map. On the local level, there also is a differentiation between trade and smuggling. Trade, or “tigara”, tends to concern the more consumer-esque goods and therefore the trafficking across borders of cell phones, metals, building materials, and etc are easily justified in a cultural understanding of space that contradicts the nation-state.5.Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: 6.International Affairs Other goods that have traditionally been considered part of “tigara,” such as hashish and other drugs, are illicit by the laws of modern nation-states. Not a single person who practices tigara considers themselves a professional smuggler. It is just something one does that is embedded in a cross-border kinship association with other members of the same tribe. The young men who do the smuggling are often also farmers, herders, or wage laborers.7.Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: International Affairs The more illicit smuggling, “tahrib”, is much more associated with very hard drugs, human trafficking, and weapons trading. It is a taboo subject to be avoided in most discussions, and the phrase “tigara bidn gummruk” is used to refer to “trade without customs” or “going to the Sinai”. Tahrib is much less openly tolerated than tigara, and while tigara is conducted within the daily confines of kinship and community, tahrib is much more often conducted by trans-national criminal organizations that are often embedded within tribal communities.8.Gaita Raimond, “Gaza: Morality, Law and Politics”: UWA Publishing9.Jerome Taylor, “Forgotten: The stolen people of the Sinai”: Independent Historically tahrib is much less communally tolerated among local juridical understanding, and tribal judges tend to rule against those caught working in tahrib groups. Smugglers who conduct tahrib justify it within their own cultural and kinship settings. In the troubled economic situation that locals face, any sense of guilt is avoided by the affirmation of their communities and the sense of providing for family and tribe.10.Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: International Affairs For many locals this is the primary way that they are able to make a living for their families and progress in society, with more than a third of such families are reliant on the tigara.11.“Economic life slows to a crawl amid crackdown in North Sinai”: IRIN These smuggling rings form the bedrock of the Sinai economy, as economic stagnation, a rapid decline in tourism, and the blatant lack of state support leave locals with few options.12.“Economic life slows to a crawl amid crackdown in North Sinai”: IRIN13.Sahar Aziz, “De-securitizing counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula”: Brookings InstituteA local with the Sawarka tribe that I spoke to mentioned that “nearly half of the members of the local community are engaged in some level with the illicit economy”. This only furthers the distrust between the locals and the state.

The first and most well known method of smuggling goods in and out of the Sinai is through the Gaza tunnel systems. The collapse of the Gazan economy following the blockade had dire effects on Palestinian communities. They quickly lost access to local consumer goods for the economy and the Hamas movement military wing, Liwa Izzedine al-Qassam, faced a lack of weapons and military supplies. The tunnel economy quickly became the only thing keeping the Gazan economy afloat.14.James Verini, “The Tunnels of Gaza”: National Geographic The tunnels are a large network of underground trade routes that flow under the borders of the Sinai and Gaza. Some of these tunnels are large enough to fit entire vehicles, while others are so small that it’s difficult to crawl through some portions.15.Norman Finkelstein, “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom”: University of California Press They are used to smuggle everything from fuel and construction materials to livestock, food, medicine, weapons, and various luxuries. A report came out in 2013 of Gazans using the tunnels to smuggle in KFC from El-Arish, a previously unheard-of use for the tunnels.16.Harriet Sherwood, “The KFC smugglers of Gaza”: The Guardian The UNCTAD noted that there have been over 1,500 tunnels that were constructed since 2008, and by 2013 the flow of illicit goods into Gaza outnumbered the flow of goods from official sources.17.Shaul Shay, “Egypt’s War against the Gaza Tunnels”: Israel Defense 18.Mutasim Elagraa, Randa Jamal and Mahmoud Elkhafif, “Trade Facilitation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Restrictions and Limitations”: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Estimates on the income that comes from the tunnels vary widely, ranging from 500 million to 2 billion dollars of trade a year.19.Emily Harris, “The Long History Of The Gaza Tunnels”: National Public Radio 20.“Hamas’ Taxation is Pushing Gaza’s Residents to the Brink”: Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories This trade generates around $200 million in tax revenue for Hamas.21.“Hamas’ Taxation is Pushing Gaza’s Residents to the Brink”: Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories As Israeli border restrictions progressed, the illicit economy flourished. One smuggler in Rafah estimated that he was able to smuggle 200 cars per week through the tunnels in Gaza, an exceptional number considering the blockade and embargo.22.Nicolas Pelham, “Gaza’s Tunnel Complex”: Middle East Research and Information Project

The effect of the tunnel economy has not only been a source of income flow for Hamas, but it has also served as a vital economic source for the local tribes. The tribes that live along the Israeli-Egyptian border are primarily the Sawarka tribe and the Tarabin tribe.23.Abigail Hauslohner, “Correspondent’s Diary: Among the smugglers of Sinai”: Washington Post These two tribes have not historically been the most wealthy, but now, through a combination of growth in size and the influx in funding, have become the dominant tribes. The bulk of such trade income is not in weapons or luxury items, but from food and gasoline, or tigara. These smuggling businesses provide a vital economic lifeline not just for the Palestinians, but for the local tribes who, due to systemic discrimination, are unable to find work in the Sinai. This has a marked effect on the local tribes, who are now forced to operate outside of the official economy. They are less likely to cooperate with government officials and less likely to operate within the legal system, and are pushed towards black market organizations that tend to have ties to more radical elements. At least 6,000 individuals are connected directly to the smuggling business on the Egyptian side of Rafah.24.Steven Erlanger, “Isolation of Gaza Chokes Off Trade”: New York Times This figure includes everything from traffickers to tunnel diggers.

The other aspect of tigara that makes up a significant bulk of smuggling operations is narcotics. The narcotics smuggling industry has a deep history in the region, especially in the South Sinai. The former rulers of the Sinai, Israel, mostly ignored any enemy that was not Egypt and the flow of hashish along with other harder drugs was almost unhindered. Narcotics not only flowed through the Sinai. In some cases, the rich Sinai beaches were the end destination as the drugs flowed to tourists.25.Tsur Shezaf, “Paradise Lost: How Sinai Became a Hub for Drugs, Money and Terror”: Haaretz Sources from the time suggest five main drug smuggling gangs that operated in the region and were mostly ignored by or even co-opted by the intelligence war that was raging between Egypt and Israel.26.Joshua Gleis, “Trafficking and the Role of the Sinai Bedouin”: Belfer Center In more recent years, as the region has become more violently unstable, the ties between the drug funding and the violence began to emerge and both Israel and Egypt began to step up their efforts to control the region. However despite the additional security measures taken by both, the operation still seems almost amusingly simple, with videos emerging in 2016 of local tribesmen rolling up to the fence and just throwing bales of hashish to the other side.27.Tzvi Lev, “Watch: Special forces unit uncovers Bedouin drug smuggling ring”: Israeli National News Drug smuggling has always been a part of the daily trade in the region. It is part of that kinship-based tigara that was discussed earlier within local societies, and in this context narcotic smuggling is just seen as part of community trading.

The tahrib smuggling has a root in the Sinai, but a root that is much less founded in tribal structure and much more founded in local economic necessity. Tahrib mostly includes human and weapons trafficking across the Sinai and into Israel, Gaza, or even on to Europe. Human trafficking in the Sinai recently emerged as a major issue in 2008 with a spike in kidnap-for-ransom attacks.28.Alyssa Stein, “Human Trafficking: The Sinai Phenomenon”: World Policy It is estimated that 30,000 people were trafficked across the Sinai between 2009 and 2013, at an estimated value of 600 million USD.29.“Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea”: Langaa Research & Publishing The human trafficking elements are often conducted on foot or via SUV’s entering through the poorly defended Israeli border where women are transferred to other tribal groups and brought to the metro areas in Tel Aviv and Haifa. The targets of these kidnapping have varied from decade to decade. More recently there has been a surge in the kidnapping of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers that are trying to escape from Eritrea and Sudan to Europe. Some of this smuggling was done at the behest of the migrants, with the price for smuggling a refugee skyrocketing to nearly $40,000 by 2015.30.“Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea”: Langaa Research & Publishing31.Alyssa Stein, “Human Trafficking: The Sinai Phenomenon”: World Policy However, just as often as the migrants were smuggled across the border, they were also kidnapped, enslaved, or murdered for their organs. While this trafficking is often conducted by local bedouins, it relies on security forces turning a blind eye, as vehicles with hostages have to cross the Suez canal which means collaboration with officials.32.Ruth Ghebrai, “Human trafficking in the Sinai Desert”: Uppsala University As the operation expanded from 2009 to 2013, the amount for randoms increased from a few hundred dollars in 2009 to $60,000 in 2013 as costs for bribing security personnel and protections increased. A 2015 estimate found that inside the Sinai, there were somewhere between 40-100 camps that held hostage.33.“Human and organ trafficking in the Sinai – a humanitarian catastrophe”: Desert Rose Human smuggling is not an accepted part of Bedouin trading, and in fact is looked down upon by local societies as being immoral. However, the rest of the local economy is also illegal and while there may be community repercussions for human trafficking, it is unlikely that there will be any legal ramifications. 34.Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: International Affairs

The explosives smuggling industry also did not originate with the blockade. Smugglers have been using the mostly empty desert border between Egypt and Israel to smuggle weapons and explosives to the Palestinians for decades. This type of smuggling was ignored by the Egyptian state because the potential targets for that violence were not within the borders of Egypt. This is similar as to why the Israelis mostly ignored the narcotic smuggling industry in the 1970s. As Hamas began to militarize, the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai began to ramp up smuggling operations. Israeli intelligence estimated that in the four years before the blockade the tribes and Hamas smuggled in 250 tons of explosives, 80 tons of fertilizer, 4000 RPG’s, and 1800 rockets and this has not decreased. 35.Mohammed Al-Belasi and Mohammed Al-Leithi, “موقع إسرائيلى: «حماس» تتعاون مع «داعش» فى تهريب الأسلحة إلى سيناء”: El-Watan News  As the tunnel economy rose, so did the number of weapons that were smuggled into Gaza. Despite the lack of government control, local tribal groups are not heavily harmed. In fact, as a methodology for keeping the peace between groups, most tribes have intentionally not encouraged armament. The smuggling of weapons into Gaza and to other organisations, therefore, does not have its roots in a militarised Bedouin society. It instead has its roots in economic necessity. As the Qassam Brigade felt the pinch of the blockade, their need for weapons and their amenability to pay for them increased dramatically. Historically the majority of weapons in the Gaza Strip came from Iran through tunnel routes. However, as the security situation has ramped up in recent years, there has not been a decline in arms smuggling as the collapse of Libya allowed the market to flood with Libyan firearms. As both Islamists and smugglers took advantage of the collapse of the Libyan security structure to make a profit mere months after the fall of Qadaffi, Grad-type missiles from Libya began arriving in the Gaza Strip.36.“إسرائيل تزعم تهريب قذائف مضادة للطائرات إلى «حماس”: al-Bayan  These weapons sometimes go further, with Libyan transports being intercepted in Turkey and Lebanon full of weapons bound for Syria, and several trucks have been stopped in Israel with a similar goal. This weapon smuggling, while condemned by the tribal groups, has such an economic engine behind it that it shows no sign of slowing.

Much of the illicit smuggling economy is not in the human and weapons trafficking that makes global media. It is in consumer goods, it is in cellphones, building supplies, even gravel and cement. The blanket attack on all “smuggling” lumps every day Bedouins under the same tent as human traffickers. It paints them with the same legislative brush and ends up making them into allies of convenience, with both assisting each other. Unless mass economic revitalisation is achieved, these smuggling operations will never cease, as they form the economic engine that not only powers the economic well being of the Bedouin population, but social advancement too. The only way to combat the worst kinds of smuggling, like human and weapons trafficking, is to look the other way at tigara smuggling and focus on the one issue that both the Egyptian state and the local Bedouin identify with: to agree that human and weapons trafficking is dangerous to normalise.

The Sinai Insurgency, Part 1: An Introduction

The Sinai Insurgency, Part 2: Islamists and Militants

The Sinai Insurgency, Part 3: The Tribal Aspect

The Sinai Insurgency, Part 4: The Egyptian Military In Crisis

Chris Gentry

Chris Gentry is a graduate from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He specializes in Turkey, Syria and Iraq particularly the military background of those conflicts. His other interest is in the religious history of the region and has worked on several academic projects related to the Druze, Ismali;i and Assyrian Christian populations. He is also the director of the Syrian Civil War Podcast.

References   [ + ]

1. Adam Rasgon, “Hamas: Increased Security Along Gaza-Sinai Frontier After Deadly Attack”: Jerusalem Post
2. Azzam Tamimi, “Hamas a History From Within”. Olive Branch
3. Ciara Nugent, “The Gaza Strip Is Only 25 Miles Long. Here’s How It Became the Center of Decades of Conflict”: Time
4. “Guide: Why are Israel and the Palestinians fighting over Gaza?”: BBC
5. Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”:
6. International Affairs
7, 34. Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: International Affairs
8. Gaita Raimond, “Gaza: Morality, Law and Politics”: UWA Publishing
9. Jerome Taylor, “Forgotten: The stolen people of the Sinai”: Independent
10. Thomas Husken, “The practice and culture of smuggling in the borderland of Egypt and Libya”: International Affairs
11, 12. “Economic life slows to a crawl amid crackdown in North Sinai”: IRIN
13. Sahar Aziz, “De-securitizing counterterrorism in the Sinai Peninsula”: Brookings Institute
14. James Verini, “The Tunnels of Gaza”: National Geographic
15. Norman Finkelstein, “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom”: University of California Press
16. Harriet Sherwood, “The KFC smugglers of Gaza”: The Guardian
17. Shaul Shay, “Egypt’s War against the Gaza Tunnels”: Israel Defense
18. Mutasim Elagraa, Randa Jamal and Mahmoud Elkhafif, “Trade Facilitation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory: Restrictions and Limitations”: United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
19. Emily Harris, “The Long History Of The Gaza Tunnels”: National Public Radio
20, 21. “Hamas’ Taxation is Pushing Gaza’s Residents to the Brink”: Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories
22. Nicolas Pelham, “Gaza’s Tunnel Complex”: Middle East Research and Information Project
23. Abigail Hauslohner, “Correspondent’s Diary: Among the smugglers of Sinai”: Washington Post
24. Steven Erlanger, “Isolation of Gaza Chokes Off Trade”: New York Times
25. Tsur Shezaf, “Paradise Lost: How Sinai Became a Hub for Drugs, Money and Terror”: Haaretz
26. Joshua Gleis, “Trafficking and the Role of the Sinai Bedouin”: Belfer Center
27. Tzvi Lev, “Watch: Special forces unit uncovers Bedouin drug smuggling ring”: Israeli National News
28, 31. Alyssa Stein, “Human Trafficking: The Sinai Phenomenon”: World Policy
29, 30. “Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea”: Langaa Research & Publishing
32. Ruth Ghebrai, “Human trafficking in the Sinai Desert”: Uppsala University
33. “Human and organ trafficking in the Sinai – a humanitarian catastrophe”: Desert Rose
35. Mohammed Al-Belasi and Mohammed Al-Leithi, “موقع إسرائيلى: «حماس» تتعاون مع «داعش» فى تهريب الأسلحة إلى سيناء”: El-Watan News
36. “إسرائيل تزعم تهريب قذائف مضادة للطائرات إلى «حماس”: al-Bayan