Yasser Abu Moailek's Letter From Gaza
Journey Into The Gunrunning World Of Gaza
By Yasser Abu Moailek
A car pulls off the road near an olive grove on the eastern border of the Gaza Strip. Alongside the road runs an electronic fence built by Israel to prevent infiltrations by Palestinian militants. On the other side Israeli military forces patrol it constantly.
The car's headlights turn off. A few meters away shadows lurk among the trees. Figures leave the car and join them. They blend together for some 10 minutes. Then all are off their separate ways. The deal has been done.
Midnight in Gaza City is prime time for conducting shadowy business. For the Hasanein family, their business is gunrunning.
Weapons are a very important commodity in the Gaza Strip. They are a tool of resistance used by Palestinian militant groups against the Israeli forces that occupy large parts of the strip.
Considering the heavy Israeli monitoring for weapons entering the strip one would expect the Hasaneins to be working an extremely difficult, if not impossible, business. They claim to the contrary.
'M.' Hasanein, age 27, lives with his seven brothers and elderly father in Montar district; the highest location in the Gaza Strip overlooking all of Gaza City and the eastern borders with Israel.
The Palestinian police cannot enter Montar, said 'M.': "They know their limits. We are far more armed than they ever can be. So, they mind their own business and we mind ours."
After many discussions and much argument, we were granted permission to enter the home of the Hasanein family. It was a relatively small living quarters with a larger front yard. Weapons of all kinds and types lay around the place - AK47 assault rifles from Russia and China, M16 rifles from the United States and Heckler submachine guns from Germany.
"We are not afraid of raids, as I've told you. The police cannot reach here, for they know what will happen if they do. We are a large family and only a few of us don't work in this line of business," said 'M.', in response to our amazement at the open display of weapons.
Asked whether they feel great threat from Israel, 'M.' grinned: "Of course, most of us are wanted by Israel for gunrunning, but it is from them that we bring the weapons. We provide a decent income for some of them.
"We receive large shipments of weapons, mostly smuggled from Israeli army bases, from Israeli dealers, who bribe the border guards to allow them passage through the [electronic] fence [surrounding Gaza], or sometimes to guard the dealers while we conduct business."
Unlike most gunrunners around the world the Hasaneins do not try to keep a low profile. They are not afraid of Palestinian law enforcement agencies, they say, for the family used to supply the Palestinian Authority (PA) with weapons.
The Hasaneins' patriarch, let us call him 'J.', was waiting for us with a water pipe at his side, smoking patiently as empty cups of tea lay on the ground nearby. His face, old and scarred, seemed to hint of street-wisdom, untold battles and a guarded past.
A rather large handgun hung from an armpit holster, while an upgraded Russian sniper rifle lay in a nearby corner.
"With the coming of the PA, we talked to them and agreed to open a small factory to produce weapons," 'J.' told us.
"We produced variations of the Uzi [Israeli submachine gun], and we repaired some AK47s that went haywire. We also produced rounds for small handguns," he said.
'J.' explained that, after a while, some PA officials tried to muscle in on their lucrative business, but they retaliated by "declaring war" and cutting off the supply of weapons from Palestinian security agencies.
"We barricaded our homes at the Montar Hill and waited for the PA to attack us. But after waiting for three months nobody showed up. They never came," he said.
"They fear us," interrupted 'S.' Hasanein, who at age 18 is the youngest member of the Hasanein family - and possibly the youngest "professional" arms dealer around.
Most of the Hasaneins never attended school and most of them are illiterate. But when it comes to weapons they are as expert as the original weapon manufacturers. Their financial affairs run smoothly and well, despite their lack of formal education.
The outburst of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000 had both a positive and negative effect on the family's business. Demand for weapons grew - especially from militant groups - but on the other hand, Israel could no longer turn a blind eye to their deals.
"Israeli tanks destroyed our [weapons] factory in 2001 during a night incursion. We could do nothing to stop them, for we know they were coming for this factory," 'M.' told us as we drove to the site of the dead factory where a small home now stands. "It was useless to fight back. We weren't equipped to face tanks and helicopters.
"Since then, we preferred smuggling to manufacturing," he added.
Nowadays, the Hasaneins tell us, they have limited arms dealings - despite still strong demand. They say that they are legitimizing their business by investing in other commercial activities and moving away from the business of war.
"This work has taken its toll on our family. We've lost members to [gang wars with] other arms dealers. Some have been jailed by Israel. We now look forward to relatively peaceful days ahead, so we want to invest the money we have made into something legitimate," said 'J'.
When asked about the deal that we had attended the other night, 'J.' laughed and responded: "These were only some crates of M16 bullets. We are preparing for the young one's wedding and we want to fire some bullets in the air during the celebrations!"