The thousands of traders who swarm the once destitute corridor that marks Gaza’s southernmost boundary with Egypt call the area the “Rafah free zone.” They spend most of their day in hot, damp passageways a hundred feet underground, dragging rubber sleighs loaded with goods and then winching them to the surface.
Rafah long languished as a provincial backwater in the claustrophobic Gaza Strip, a clannish and rural hinterland to Gaza City’s bustling and cosmopolitan downtown. A few families controlled the limited tunnel trade that existed for decades. And even in the days when Gaza’s legal overland trade flourished, weapons and contraband were still smuggled into the Strip underground.
At first, in 2007, Hamas only tolerated the tunnel economy; but it began to embrace it the following year, legalizing and regulating subterranean trade. Hamas had found a spontaneous solution to the economic crisis that was threatening its rule of Gaza -- and, in the process, turned expediency into opportunity.
Opportunism as strategy appears to be the group’s new hallmark. When faced with only bad options to deal with the blockade or its status as a diplomatic pariah, Hamas has behaved as if it chose its predicament, leveraging its position into either greater control over Gaza or greater political influence beyond its boundaries. Desperation, in other words, has become an avenue to power.
The snaking tunnels, like Hamas’ contorted diplomatic campaign, grew out of the total isolation the movement faced after it won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections. Israel and the United States both list Hamas as a terrorist group and immediately boycotted the new Hamas government. In the summer of 2007, Hamas took over Gaza after a quick but bloody clash with U.S.-trained forces from the Fatah faction. Since then, Israel has closed off all but the most basic trade and movement.
In response, Hamas moved to legalize the tunnels, charging licensing fees and opening up the “free zone” to a group of investors who would owe their profits
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