Light at the end of the tunnels?

International Herald Tribune Daily News Egypt

Philip Whitfield

October 18 2011

CAIRO: Credit where credit’s due. Mohannad Sabry, an enterprising correspondent for 30 or so American dailies filed a story this week describing the smugglers’ tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Above ground, the exchange of prisoners of war is equally enthralling – choreographed, clandestine and complicated.

Sabry’s millions of readers didn’t have to leave home. His eye-popping account landed on their doorsteps. Readers of California’s Sacramento Bee, The Island Packet on Hilton Head in South Carolina, the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska, The Wichita Eagle in Kansas, The Miami Herald and a host of other papers learned that there are no less than 1,000 tunnels underneath 14 kilometers of border.

That’s like four tunnels crisscrossing the Center Court at Wimbledon, or two up and down my apartment.

Sabry described Rafah’s Salah Eddin neighborhood on the Egyptian side: Pickups and tractor-trailers clog the narrow streets carrying loads of almost anything: cookies, canned food, tanks of cooking gas, cement, construction steel. What’s delivered, however, leaves through a network of secret tunnels that are the major conduit for goods headed into Gaza. Their value is no doubt in the tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

Sabry’s tunnel marshal took him along a narrow rail line transporting carts loaded with goods. The tunnels are divided by specialties: consumer goods and construction material in some, cars in others. One car tunnel in Rafah was customized to carry Hummers a Palestinian had bought from a Libyan.

Competition is so fierce that the cost of smuggling a ton of cement has gone down from $15,000 to $700. Hamas is reported to charge $3,000 for a tunnel license.

Sabry reports the Egyptians are using explosives to blow up tunnels they uncover. In one case last week, a tunnel was filled with tires, rubble, cement and water because explosives would damage houses nearby.

It’s a rare glimpse into the realities of cross border relations. The arguments for and against the tunnels could fill a book.

At the end of the day, Egypt must emerge with some respect for its imperturbable diplomacy. Imagine yourself convincing Hamas of your credibility as an honest peace broker while blowing up the Gaza Palestinians’ ingenious home delivery service.

Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 parliamentary elections, fought their erstwhile foe and has governed Gaza since. They’re classified as terrorists by the likes of the EU, the United States, the UK and Japan while being recognized by nations including Russia, Turkey and Switzerland.

But there’s more to this than meets the eye. This week’s prisoner swap may signal a breakthrough. On the face of it, the deal frees more than 1,000 Palestinians for the release of one man, Sergeant Gilad Shalit who was abducted by Hamas militants from Israel in June 2006 during a cross-border raid.

The apparent acquiescence by Israel and Egypt to the arrangement is significant though not for the numbers involved. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon.

Let’s look at the timing. Prisoner swaps can signal the beginning of the end game.

Peace talks in Doha between the Darfur rebels and the Sudanese government focused on the rebels releasing 60 captured government soldiers and police as a goodwill gesture. The Sudanese government welched on the bargain but the tension in Darfur has been defused as a result of face-to-face bargaining.

In Columbia FARC rebels released a couple of hostages last year as a precursor to a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between FARC and the Colombian government.

The exchange of 5,600 Iraqi prisoners of war for 300 Iranians in 1998 improved relations, though it took another eight years to make good on Iran’s promises.

In 1973, the U.S. and North Vietnam came to terms on a prisoner release for 591 American POWs, including the now Senator John McCain.

In 1962, two years after shooting down Gary Powers’ U-2 spy plane the Soviets exchanged Powers for their spy Rudolf Abel.

In 1961 Fidel Castro haggled with the Americans over the release of 1,000 Bay of Pigs prisoners demanding 500 bulldozers. Rebuffed, he demanded $28 million in credits, cash, or tractors, only to settle for $3 million topped up with medicines and baby food.

In 1953 Operation Little Switch was part of a United Nations effort to recover the remaining 12,500 allied prisoners of the Korean War. Some 100 prisoners were exchanged for 600 communist detainees at Panmunjom. A larger exchange coincided a few months later with the armistice agreement.

Prisoner exchanges were commonplace during the American Civil War up until 1864. General Ulysses S. Grant put an end to the practice after the South refused to treat captured black Union soldiers as prisoners of war. The war ended the following year.

My reading is that when prisoner swaps are agreed, they’re mostly begrudging and messy. Each side puts a gloss on the outcome. But they do indicate the presence of a willingness to negotiate in favor of combat.

At the same time as Mahmoud Abass, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization is seeking recognition for nationhood by the United Nations, Israel, Hamas and Egypt are bargaining.

It’s temerarious to suggest peace is about to be declared between Israel and the Palestinians. But it does indicate willingness by Hamas to veer away from intractability gingerly towards negotiation, to relieve some of the tension between the antagonists albeit through Egypt’s good offices.

Hamas has established undeniable authority over Gaza. It has weathered hostility from the EU, the US and the UK. One way or another Hamas has favored aplomb over a bomb to persuade Israel to release a large number of prisoners from Gaza.

On the street, Gazans extol a win. Egypt, too, can take comfort that its diplomats have alleviated an intractable, delicate quandary. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yielded to Israeli popular opinion to repatriate one of their soldiers.

A comprehensive settlement in this age-old conflict is no nearer to hand.

But lessened tension and dialogue could shepherd in a next-best phase in the relationship: the beginning of an understanding.

Around the corner could be a flicker at the end of the tunnel.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator.

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