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.
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.