updated 3/2/2009 12:53:14 PM ET 2009-03-02T17:53:14

Even some rugged tunnel smugglers who profit from Gaza's blockaded borders say they'd rather import legally through open crossings than risk Israeli bombing raids and shaft collapses.

As the world's top diplomats gathered in neighboring Egypt on Monday and pledged more than $4.4 billion for war-ravaged Gaza, ordinary people here — from the smugglers to housewives and shopkeepers — clamored for open borders, not handouts.

"I want a cease-fire and open borders. Crossings are better than tunnels," said 22-year-old Abu Mahmoud, leaning over a tunnel shaft as workers below tried to clear a 100-meter stretch that had collapsed under a recent Israeli air strike.

Opportunity to review Gaza policy
The donors' conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik also offered a rare opportunity for the international community to review its Gaza policy. The closure of Gaza, imposed by Israel and Egypt after the violent Hamas takeover of the territory in June 2007, failed to topple the Islamic militants. Instead, it deepened poverty and fostered militancy.

During it's three-week military offensive in Gaza, Israel stopped short of trying to bring down Hamas. With the militants still in power, but Israel leaving considerable destruction in its wake, donor countries now have to find a way to rebuild Gaza.

International aid officials have said reconstruction is only possible with open borders.

However, Israel and Egypt have set conditions, including a complicated prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas, and reconciliation between Hamas and its moderate West Bank rivals, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

At the upscale Delice Cafe in Gaza City, speeches from the conference were broadcast live on a TV in the corner Monday, but patrons didn't pay much attention.

"I don't think we can derive hope from such a meeting," said civil engineering student Wassim Jaradat, 24, sitting at a table with two friends and sipping cappuccino. "I don't think any immediate results will be seen on the ground."

Thousands of homes destroyed, damaged
The Israeli offensive destroyed or damaged some 15,000 homes, according to Palestinian estimates. At the conference, Abbas was seeking at least $2.8 billion in new aid, asking that most of it be funneled through his government. Nearly doubled that amount was pledged, and Palestinian Planning Minister Samir Abdullah deemed the conference a success.

In Gaza City, car parts dealer Nayef Masharawi, 60, said he was encouraged by the fact that top officials were meeting at all to talk about Gaza's future. He said the blockade has been bad for business, noting that a gallon of Egyptian motor oil bought from tunnel smugglers costs nearly twice as much as the superior product he used to import from Israel. His last shipment from Israel arrived in May 2007, a month before the Hamas takeover.

The elderly shopkeeper said he had fond memories of the 1970s when he would drive from Gaza City to his Mercedes supplier in the Israeli port city of Haifa, without borders or checkpoints.

Housewife Sulafa Ayyad said she followed the donors' conference on TV, hoping for new leads on claiming compensation for damage to her two-story home in Gaza City's Zeitoun neighborhood.

The house, built with savings from her husband Ibrahim's years as a laborer in Israel, had been hit by bullets and shrapnel during the Israeli offensive.

Ayyad, 33, said that so far, the family had received only $200 from a neighborhood welfare committee. She said there was some confusion over whether the family should get emergency aid from the Hamas government or a U.N. aid agency for refugees.

"I am so glad that the world supports us, but I voice my hope that all the promises and pledges will reach the people who were affected by the war," she said. "I am one of them, but until this minute, they fed us only words, not deeds."

Reporting to work in the tunnels
Gaza's desperation is perhaps most keenly felt in the border town of Rafah, near Egypt, where hundreds of young men report to work every day in smuggling tunnels.

Since the Dec. 27 start of the Israeli offensive, going underground has turned into a suicide mission. Israeli warplanes keep bombing tunnels, even after the Jan. 18 cease-fire, because smugglers bring in not only consumer goods, but also weapons and cash for Hamas. On Sunday, five tunnel workers died when a tunnel collapsed from heavy rains.

Yet, there are few jobs to be had in a bleak economy.

A 25-year-old tunnel digger, who would only give his name as Abu Bashar, said he goes to work even if there've been air strikes that day. He is drawn by danger pay of $300, compared to the normal salary of $100 for a quiet day.

He proudly pulled his four-day pay of $1,000 — a wad of hundred-dollar bills — from his pants pocket. He shrugged off the dangers, saying he is newly married and has to pay off a $7,000 loan for his home.

One of the tunnel diggers was Ahmed Abu Samhadaneh, 20, a second-year university student. He had supported his parents and seven siblings with tunnel work for the past year, as the only breadwinner. Abu Samhadaneh was killed in Sunday's tunnel collapse.

His shaken father Issam, standing next to Ahmed's freshly dug grave Sunday, blamed the greed of his son's employer and the blockade. "If the border was open, my son would still be alive today, and he wouldn't have to go work in the tunnels," he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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