In Rafah, The Ruthless Leader Of Gaza's 'Financial Capital'

In his 40s, Ra'ed al Atar has emerged as a key to the future of Hamas, both militarily and economically.

Ra'ed al Atar, a key Hamas figure emerging in Rafah
Ra'ed al Atar, a key Hamas figure emerging in Rafah
Doron Peskin

The fierce fighting over the weekend has focused newfound attention on the southern part of Gaza, and specifically the city of Rafah.

With a population around 130,000, the city has been dubbed Gaza's "financial capital." Since its surrounding sand dunes are inarable, Rafah has developed trade relations with its southern neighbor, Egypt.

But the conflict between Hamas and Israel, as well as Egypt's control over the Rafah border crossing, have led to ebbs and flows in the city's economy.

In 2006, in the aftermath of Israel's Operation Summer Rains, banners were hung at entrance to the city: "Welcome to the devastated area." Behind them were Rafah residents, protesting the poverty, unemployment and overall neglect they had felt were the result of Cairo's refusal to open up the Rafah crossing — which some have dubbed Gaza's "oxygen tube."

But Gazans have come up with two solutions. Once the smuggling tunnels started appearing, linking Gaza and Egypt, things changed dramatically. Between 2006-2007 joblessness in Rafah stood at 60%, but at the height of tunnel activity it was halved. By comparison, unemployment in the West Bank city of Hebron stands at 22%.

Alongside the tunnels, the Egyptian refusal to open the Rafah crossing for human travel and trade has fueled corruption. Many Palestinian passengers who sought to go through the Rafah crossing have been reporting for years a disturbing rise in bribery cases, on both Palestinian and Egyptian sides.

Consequently, it is possible that the Egyptian officer in charge of shutting down the tunnels in Rafah was tempted to accept bribes in exchange for turning a blind eye — and such scenario should raise concerns among Israeli decision makers, not least after the current fighting has proved Hamas' military wing had managed to supply its needs through the tunnels in recent years.

De facto boss

Hamas, and particularly members of its military wing, have well understood the importance of Rafah for building the movement's power. A key figure emerging in Rafah has been Ra'ed al Atar, chief of the southern brigade, considered to hold one of the most senior positions in Hamas' military operations.

His standing in the military operations of Hamas makes him the de facto ruler of Rafah. According to Israeli sources, Atar's men are responsible for the 2006 abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held for more than five years; they are also believed to have worked to develop the assault tunnels around Rafah, meant to kidnap more soldiers.

Believed to be in his forties, Atar is a senior member of higher military council of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades — and one of Israel's most wanted, with the blood of many Israelis on his hands.

Through the years he has become the unrivaled boss of the Rafah tunnel system, and essentially of Rafah as a whole, responsible for enabling the entrance of all materials and equipment required for Hamas to build its military power

Israel isn't the only party set on taking him out. Egypt wants to investigate him for his suspected role in enabling global jihad fighters, trained in Gaza, to go through the tunnels and strike Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula.

According to Gaza sources, Atar has been running the smuggling tunnels effectively as a family business. He appointed his brother to oversee the underground activity, with the backing of Hamas militants just in case. Atar and his brother, the reports claim, have had exclusive control on the trafficking of stolen Egyptian cars, where a special gang worked for them. They pocketed most of the surplus revenues.

In a rare interview with the Hamas website, Atar was asked how he felt after realizing the Israeli air force had bombed his home during the first days of Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and he responded: "It was predictable, because civilian homes were also bombed." Since that operation, his house has been rebuilt, and at the beginning of the current fighting, it was demolished again.

A job magnet

In that interview, Atar also said members of Hamas received support from Gazans, some of whom also provided shelter to the militants.

Between 2008 and 2013, Rafah grew to become a magnet for Gaza's job-seeking youth, finding income there in the tunnel business. Many merchants also shifted their activities to Rafah, with Hamas members and affiliates reaping much of the benefits. Thousands of Gaza families have enjoyed the so-called tunnel economy — from the junior laborers to wealthy merchants and businessmen.

And in fact, the tunnel prosperity has also become an attraction on the other side of the border. The Arab press was full of stories about Egyptian youngsters who had left their poor villages in the Nile Delta to work in the tunnels, making several hundreds of dollars a month — a high income in Egyptian terms — which they would then transfer to their families in the villages.

However, in 2013, the Egyptian army started searching and destroying the tunnels, and today it claims 95% of them have been demolished. Data about the impact of this move on Rafah's economy are unavailable, but it is clear it has sustained a serious blow.

And yet, even before Operation Protective Edge, Palestinian economics commentator Moin Rajab argued that, "There is incredible capital gained by the tunnel trade, and it is important it goes for the benefit of the city through investment and development projects."

According to the city of Rafah, in 2013 it invested approximately $22 million in infrastructure development, with the lion's share going to the city center, the Shabura refugee camp and the eastern part of the city.

Part of the investment funds were awarded as a special grant from Qatar, the sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. It can only be speculated how much has been invested underground by the Hamas' military wing. At least on the surface, most of the investment has now been lost due to the fighting between the Israeli military and Hamas.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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