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Smuggling along a tense border a lifeblood of Bedouin

By Diana Magnay and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
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Sinai's Bedouin smugglers
  • Bedouin control much of the smuggling into Gaza from Sinai
  • Two who spoke to CNN boast five tunnels leading into Gaza
  • Cars, olives, marijuana and animals have made their way through tunnels
  • Tribesmen say they draw a "red line" at terrorism and hostages, though

Rafah, Egypt (CNN) -- The Bedouin tribesmen of North Sinai are restive.

They live in a particularly sensitive region where Egypt borders Gaza and Israel to the south. During Egypt's 18-day revolution, Bedouin tribesmen torched Sinai's police stations in revenge for what they describe as decades of oppression during former President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.

Now, they've forbidden the few police still in North Sinai to enter Bedouin country around Rafah and four other towns. They speak of separation from Egypt, but are vague on what they mean.

It's a far-fetched proposition, one the Egyptian Interior Ministry won't even entertain. "It sounds like colonization to me. What would their identity be then?" said Alla Mahmoud, head of public relations in the ministry.

For centuries their identity was nomadic. They roamed the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula with little care for national borders or sovereign rule. Modern life has persuaded many Bedouin to opt for a more sedentary existence in the various countries they inhabit, but they haven't shaken their reputation as professional outlaws.

We refuse to allow suicide bombers through the tunnels to bomb Israeli targets from the Egyptian side. And we won't smuggle hostages, either.
--Salem, Bedouin tribesman
  • Sinai Peninsula
  • Egypt
  • Gaza

Nowhere is that reputation more pronounced than in North Sinai, where they control much of the smuggling into Gaza. Their motivation is profit, not any particular affinity with the Palestinian people.

And it's big business.

Ibrahim, from the Sawarka tribe around El Arish, the North Sinai governate's capital, says he "chipped in" with some partners to build five tunnels into Gaza costing about $100,000 each. The tunnels are used to transport big-ticket items such as cars, most of them these days with Libyan number plates. Ibrahim shows off his array of battered old Mercedes, Kias, even a Range Rover. Usually, he sends about 10 cars through the tunnels at a time, once or twice a week.

Salem is a friend of Ibrahim's from the neighboring Tarabin tribe. Neither wanted to use his full name for fear of police reprisal. Salem smuggles weapons, olives, tomatoes and canned food through the tunnels into Gaza. Olives cost about $100 per carton. Animals, such as a tiger or small elephant for the Gaza zoo, cost as much as $20,000, Salem said.

"But there's a red line," he said. "We refuse to allow suicide bombers through the tunnels to bomb Israeli targets from the Egyptian side. And we won't smuggle hostages,either. I was once offered $500,000 to smuggle an Israeli hostage to Islamist groups in Gaza. I refused."

Sending marijuana across the border into Israel isn't a problem, though. "It sells at double the price it does in Egypt," Salem said.

Salem is a wanted man, with an 86-year prison sentence pronounced against him in absentia. He can't tell us what the specific charges were -- he said he was never told. But for 18 years now he's lived as a fugitive, avoiding Sinai's cities for fear of arrest.

"Sometimes state security tell you, 'Work for us as an informer,'" Salem said. "They give you weapons or drugs to put in someone's house and when you refuse, they'll frame you for a case."

While clearly not the picture of innocence, Salem believes he should have received due process. He said the police have a vendetta against his people.

"We will not allow the police into the Rafah area until our demands are met," Ibrahim said. "Cancel all absentia sentences, put those officers who killed our sons on trial and let us own land."

Gen. Saleh al Masri, who heads North Sinai's police security, told CNN no charges had been brought against any of his officers for crimes against the Bedouin. But in an attempt at appeasement after the revolution, many Bedouin had been released from prison.

"The Bedouin destroyed the police infrastructure completely and burned all our police stations, which crippled us. We are still unable to enter the areas they control. I am working on an outreach program to their elders and leaders in order to reach some sort of truce and gradually pave the way toward an agreement," al Masri said.

Retired Egyptian Gen. Sameh Seif Elyazal is a military expert at the Al Gomhouria Center for security studies in Cairo.

"Representatives of all Islamic wings are in North Sinai," he said. "If you ask about al Qaeda, there is no confirmation that al Qaeda is there but we believe they are there somehow."

Egypt's state security was dissolved after the revolution, which has added to the state of lawlessness in Egypt's northeast. Keeping a lid on instability in North Sinai will depend in large part on the goodwill of the Bedouin.

Right now that is nonexistent.