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Easing of Gaza blockade devastates smuggling industry

RAFAH, Gaza Strip - Israel's easing of its Gaza blockade has accomplished something its bombing raids and an underground steel wall could not: It has devastated the Hamas-ruled territory's once-thriving smuggling industry.

Now that most consumer goods can again reach Gaza through Israel - after three years of tight border closures - many of the hundreds of smuggling tunnels that once served as the Palestinian territory's lifeline have simply shut down.

Only a few dozen are still active, compared with a total of about 400 before, a Hamas government official said. And an Associated Press spot check in one former smuggling hot spot found only one in four tunnels working.

The sharp decline is not believed to have affected a steady influx of weapons and other contraband through special Hamas-controlled tunnels, seen as crucial to the militants' continued hold on power. The Iranian-backed group seized Gaza by force in June 2007.

However, when it comes to consumer goods, Gaza merchants prefer to import legally through land crossings with Israel. Those shipments tend to be cheaper and more predictable than the illicit trade, which is subject to Egyptian crackdowns, Israeli attacks and treacherous collapses.

Israel eased the closure in June in an attempt to deflect mounting international criticism following its deadly raid of a Gaza-bound international flotilla.

Palestinian smugglers have had to scale back, limiting themselves to goods still restricted by Israel on security grounds, such as construction materials like cement and steel, and goods that are significantly cheaper in Egypt.

"We are running out of business these days," complained smuggler Saber Salem, 36, who used to operate three tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border, with five business partners and 40 workers. Now, he runs one tunnel with 15 employees.

Salem's most recent haul was olive oil smuggled in from Egypt - which, at $30 a gallon, was nearly half the price of oil brought in from Israel.

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