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Cars are hottest new item from Gaza tunnels

Car smuggling is a lucrative business: trafficker

A shiny green Volkswagen, standing out among the rattletraps on Gaza's dilapidated roads, is the latest hot item to come out of the besieged territory's smuggling tunnels.

Cars are brought in piece by piece from Egypt, which only opens its sole crossing point into Gaza for humanitarian purposes, because of an embargo imposed by Israel two years ago.

A handful of the hundreds of smuggling tunnels in the Rafah border area are dedicated solely to the auto operation that started a few years ago. The entrepreneurs who run them say they've managed to bring in 30 to 40 vehicles in the past few months alone.

Hamas controls at least two of the car tunnels, according to operators who spoke under pseudonyms because of the sensitive nature of their work.

Reassembling

"We receive a car in four sections plus the motor," says Abu Bilal, a mechanic who, like others involved in the enterprise, gave an assumed name.

"We verify that everything is OK and then we begin to reassemble it right away," he says, as his team prepares to get to work on a 2004 BMW fresh from the subterranean passages.

"We need two weeks to reassemble a car, since we have to solder the pieces and repaint the body," Abu Bilal says. "The client chooses the color."

Tunnel operators buy the sections -- mostly from stolen or repossessed vehicles -- in Egypt.

"Smuggling cars is more difficult than smuggling fuel, for example, since we are dealing with large pieces that can be detected and this means a lot more care has to be taken during transport, since Egyptian security on the other end are watching carefully," Abu Bilal says.

We verify that everything is OK and then we begin to reassemble it right away

Abu Bilal, a mechanic

A lucrative business

The business is lucrative, at least by the standards of the impoverished coastal strip.

"A car on the Egyptian side costs us $ 6,000 to 10,000 on average," says Abu Saed, another trafficker. "Once we re-assemble and repaint it, we sell it for at least double that."

But it is also a risky business.

One of the tunnels was hit last week by the Israeli air force. "After that raid, car smuggling was briefly halted," a smuggler said.

The Israeli military usually targets smuggling tunnels in retaliation for attacks from Gaza on the Jewish state. The tunnels are used to bring in supplies as well as weapons into the impoverished territory.

Tunnel operators say Egypt too is increasingly cracking down on the underground smuggling, by pumping sewage or gas or by throwing explosives into the tunnels.

In his Gaza City auto shop, Abdel Sattar is putting the final touches on a 2009 Mitsubishi four-by-four that has just been assembled and repainted gray.

A car on the Egyptian side costs us $ 6,000 to 10,000 on average

Abu Saed, another trafficker

Ready to be sold

"It's ready to be sold," he says, looking proudly over the paint job. "I think I can get $ 20,000 for it."

"These cars are getting more and more expensive, but they are still cheaper than those registered in Gaza," prices of which have risen because of the blockade, he says.

The demand for cars in Gaza, home of 1.5 million people half of whom are under 18, has shot up after the 22-day war that Israel waged there at the turn of the year in response to rocket fire.

Out of 55,000 cars officially registered, several hundred were destroyed in the fighting and hundreds of others have stopped running because of lack of spare parts, says Adnan Abu Odeh, director general of the Hamas transport ministry.

The Hamas government says it will consider the tunnels legal until the blockade is lifted.

The Rafah municipality charges a 10,000 shekel ($ 2,500) fee to open a smuggling tunnel and while the transport ministry officially refuses to register the smuggled cars it is possible to obtain the necessary documents.

Owners of imported cars can obtain registration papers from a special department of the Hamas-controlled police, which issues temporary license plates.

These cars are getting more and more expensive, but they are still cheaper than those registered in Gaza

Abdel Sattar, auto shop owner