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Originally published January 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 23, 2009 at 9:16 AM

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After attacks, Gaza's tunnel diggers get back to work

>One day after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip after a 26-day military campaign to destabilize the Islamist group Hamas and demolish the tunnels used to bring in weapons, Palestinian smugglers — and tunnel diggers — were back in business.

McClatchy Newspapers

Other developments

Aid for Gaza: The United Nations will quickly raise money for emergency repairs in the Gaza Strip, U.N. aid chief John Holmes promised Thursday after witnessing what he called shocking destruction from the 26-day war between Israel and Hamas. Holmes acknowledged there is no fallback plan if reconstruction is snagged by the power struggle between Gaza's militant Hamas rulers and their moderate Fatah rivals in the West Bank.

Restrictions lifted: Israel said Thursday that starting today, foreign journalists would be free to enter and leave the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed restrictions in early November.

Source: Seattle Times news services

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Abu Nissim rose from the covered tunnel entrance and triumphantly raised a box of Cheer Up chocolate-covered wafers over his head.

"New from the tunnel," the Palestinian tunnel digger boasted Thursday as his friends tore open the packages of Egyptian cookies.

One day after the last Israeli soldier left the Gaza Strip after a 26-day military campaign to destabilize the Islamist group Hamas and demolish the tunnels used to bring in weapons, Palestinian smugglers — and tunnel diggers — were back in business.

Bulldozers rumbled along the border, clearing away tons of earth for new tunnel entrances. Boys climbed 90 feet down into the ground to recover supplies from storerooms in partially demolished tunnels. Fuel trucks pulled up to makeshift depots to fill up on diesel fuel and liquid propane, which is used for cooking, that's pumped underground from the Egyptian side of the border.

"We will be like the phoenix rising from the ashes," Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said as he walked through the rubble of buildings destroyed by airstrikes near the border.

His boast coincided with new warnings from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

"For the tunnels, nothing will be as it was before," Livni said while meeting with European officials in Brussels, Belgium, to discuss efforts to ensure that Hamas isn't allowed to use the tunnels to smuggle in more weapons. "Things must be clear: Israel reserves the right to react militarily against the tunnels once and for all."

Israeli airstrikes repeatedly hit the eight-mile stretch along the border that's filled with up to 1,300 tunnels, used to smuggle in everything from brides and lion cubs to rocket-propelled grenades and advanced missiles.

Destroying the tunnels was a central goal of the Israeli military campaign, which Gaza medical officials estimated killed 1,300 Palestinians. Israeli officials estimated the attacks destroyed 80 percent of the tunnels, and Palestinians agreed the strikes crippled their smuggling business.

The tunnels — 45 feet beneath the surface — usually run for up to 800 yards from Gaza into Egypt, where their entrances are hidden in homes.

Smugglers along the border said they'd be able to dig out within weeks, if not days.

Some tunnels are back in business. A strong odor of diesel drifted along the border as Mohammed Barhoum stood in front of two makeshift, 8,000-gallon fuel tanks slowly filling with diesel and liquid propane as they were pumped through plastic pipes that stretched 450 yards underground across the border into Egypt.

Like other smugglers, Barhoum said the Israeli blockade of Hamas-led Gaza had forced him to become a smuggler so he could care for his family.

Before he began his fuel-smuggling business last month, Barhoum ran a factory that makes construction blocks, but he said Israel's refusal to allow concrete and other supplies into the Gaza Strip had forced him to shut it down.

"If they opened the terminals tomorrow, I would go back to my business," Barhoum said.

Israeli leaders refuse to allow a normal flow of supplies and aid through the country's borders and into the Gaza Strip as long as its Hamas rulers stand by the group's long-standing pledge to destroy Israel.

Abu Ahmed, 33, a tunnel owner, said the best way for Israel to shut down the tunnels would be to open the borders.

"If they opened the borders all the way, all our work would be canceled," he said as he took a break from digging out his collapsed tunnel.

Israel is trying to persuade Egypt to take tougher steps to shut down the tunnels. The United States has agreed to provide more tools to combat smuggling, but it remains unclear when or how the U.S.-Israeli agreement would work.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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