THEY call them the "Draculas" – rich, ruthless men who have carved a fortune out of the dark earth beneath the Egypt-Gaza border. This particular class of Palestinian tunnel-owner has never been popular with locals; now, after Israel's three-week bombardment, the Draculas are back in business and fuelling a new wave of tension at the heart of Gazan society.
This time last week, the Hai Qishta district of Rafah was a ghost town, throbbing day and night with "bunker-buster" explosives dropped from Israeli war planes. Now different noises fill the air; the shouts, banging and clanging of a small army of workers busy repairing the vast network of tunnel entrances dotted around this sandy patch of land less than 200 metres from the Egyptian border.
Some are digging away under white canvas tents; most don't even bother with this most basic attempt at discretion. "Nearly everyone is rebuilding now, this time with stronger stone entrance shafts," Mahmoud, a 24-year-old tunnel manager, says. "It may take a month or two for us to be operating at full capacity again, but we'll get there."
The tunnels have, in the past, had many uses – often contradictory ones – for the people of Gaza: subterranean lifelines during the Israeli-imposed siege on their land; magnets for destruction in the heat of war; stark enforcers of inequality and exploitation throughout.
And as Rafah's biggest industry grinds slowly back into action, it is this latter role that is causing consternation among communities affected by the smuggling trade.
Mohammed Qishta's relatives have lived in this area for so long that they have taken it on as the family name. Mohammed, 60, saw his house levelled by Israeli bulldozers four years ago; since then, he has been approached regularly by businessmen looking to lease his land for tunnel-building. "They usually offer around $1,000 (700) up front, then a 10 to 20 per cent cut of all future profits," he told The Scotsman. "For people round here, that's a huge amount of money."
Many of his neighbours have been persuaded by the promise of cash; sources suggest there are up to 700 tunnels along the border with Egypt, plus hundreds of small tubes pumping illicit petrol into Gaza. Mohammed, however, gives the smugglers the same answer every time. "I tell them no, no and no again," he says forcefully. "Who are these tunnels for? They exist for the rich alone; 98 per cent of Gazans will never benefit from this work."
Crippling Rafah's tunnel complex was a key objective of Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza. Israeli politicians painted the tunnels as a criminal conduit for weapons and drugs; international defenders of the smugglers argued that by providing a passage for essential food and medicines, the tunnels helped Palestinians survive the growing humanitarian crisis caused by Israel's blockade on Gaza, which began in June 2007 in response to the takeover of the Strip by Hamas. In Gaza, however, many share Mohammed's cynicism, not just because some tunnels are used to ferry the likes of arms and alcohol, but also because they are seen as personal supply lines for the privileged.
Mahmoud, who built his tunnel with friends about a year ago, is scathing about the Draculas. "There are two distinct groups of tunnel operators in Rafah," he says. "Our tunnel is about breaking the siege. We always saw it as a moral act. But there are those who looked on the siege as an opportunity to make a profit out of misery."
It's a claim borne out by the experience of Nesrine, an English teacher who lives in Rafah. When she needed cream to treat a skin condition last summer, she turned to the tunnel operators, who are taxed on their activities by the Hamas authorities.
"The Draculas completely ignored me because I couldn't pay much," she recalls. "But the humanitarian tunnel operators brought the stuff straight over and said it would be an insult to accept any money from me."
Rebuilding their shattered land after the Israeli assault, most Gazans grudgingly accept the tunnels and the Draculas as an inevitable feature of the landscape as long as Gaza's border crossings remain sealed. Mohammed Qishta's son, Abed, says: "It's the Israelis who made us need the tunnels, and that's the real tragedy – that they've created this situation where people can capitalise on disaster."
For Nesrine though, the issue is simpler. "If I was president of Palestine, I would shut them all tomorrow," she says. "Only then would people see the reality of what the siege has really done to our people."
GEORGE Mitchell, Barack Obama's new Middle East envoy, arrived in Israel yesterday to strengthen a ten-day-old Gaza ceasefire – as Israeli warplanes pounded smuggling tunnels in retaliation for a Palestinian bombing that killed a soldier.
Mr Mitchell called for the ceasefire to "be extended and consolidated".
Mr Mitchell's tour launches the first Middle East foray of the new Obama administration. The US president said his envoy would listen to all sides to craft an approach for moving forward with stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
After talks in Jerusalem with Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, Mr Mitchell said securing the ceasefire was "of criticial importance". A longer-term break should centre on "an end to smuggling and reopening the crossings" into Gaza, largely closed since Hamas took over in 2007.