Issue No.1156, 11 July, 2013      09-07-2013 11:03PM ET

A glimpse into Gaza’s tunnels

A conduit for smugglers, the lifeline of a beleaguered people, a bonanza for racketeers — what is the reality behind the Gaza tunnels, asks Hayat Yehia

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A graffiti of Ahmed Yassin and Yasser Arafat in a Gaza City street
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A 2010 photo of a Palestinian smuggler bringing sheep through a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt
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Egyptian soldiers stand guard outside smuggling tunnels beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah
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19 February; a 2010 photo of a Palestinian smuggling refrigerators through a tunnel from Egypt to the Gaza Strip
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Palestinians, especially members of Hamas, the Islamist group now in charge of Gaza, have long been accused of meddling in Egyptian affairs. Such accusations took on a bitter note following the killings of Egyptian soldiers in Rafah nearly a year ago and the more recent abduction of soldiers in Sinai two months ago. Claims that Hamas members once broke into a prison in Wadi Al-Natroun to free Palestinian inmates and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, have given the controversy a political edge.

Relations with Gaza also took a new turn recently when an Egyptian court passed a ruling ordering the government to close down the tunnels leading out of Gaza and into Egypt. A few weeks ago, the Egyptian army launched Operation Eagle, during which it apparently flooded most of the tunnels with water. News reports say that the army has already destroyed 75 per cent of the tunnels. What is the truth behind these allegations?

Just days before Al-Ahram Weekly went to Gaza to inspect the tunnels, British tabloid newspapers such as The Sun and Daily Mirror, along with BBC television, ran pictures of a KFC worker apparently using the tunnels in Gaza to deliver fast-food meals. The pictures caused uproar in Egypt, and Israel used them in order to claim that Gaza was not really starving, despite its six-year siege. Israeli spokesman Ofir Gendelman, posting on Twitter, quipped that “Gazans are buying Kentucky fried meals from Arish and smuggling them through the tunnels. Is Gaza really as hungry as all that?”

Walking through the Rafah crossing into Gaza in June, the present writer was approached by a security man on the Egyptian side who whispered that “you cannot imagine the money these Palestinians are making. Each one of them has enough to support dozens of Egyptians.”

 

A THOUSAND MILLIONAIRES: The rich Gazans that he was referring to made their money from the tunnel trade, said Moeen Rajab, a professor of economics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Rafah, where the tunnel industry started, was considered one of the poorest cities in the world until a few years ago. Then, the Israeli siege turned the tunnels into a source of easy money for the Strip’s residents.

Thanks to the tunnels, there are about 1,000 people in Rafah with a personal wealth of over $1 million. The rest of the people, however, still live in abject poverty, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor has caused much social unease, Rajab said.

Amr Shaaban, a Palestinian economics researcher who has written a study on the tunnels, said the money from the tunnels had created a new class whose members spent most of their cash buying luxury cars or speculating in land and real estate. The new class was also gaining political and cultural influence in Gaza, he said. “As you would expect, this new class is establishing ties with the authorities in order to gain protection,” Shaaban added.

As a result, economic activity has gravitated from Gaza City to Rafah in the south. “Money has moved from the traditionally wealthy families that live in or near the city of Gaza to Rafah, where new partnerships have been set up involving cooperation between the business class, which is knowledgeable about the economy, and a new class that has experience of digging tunnels as well as family connections with the tribes in Sinai,” Shaaban said.

Nabil Al-Yazji, the owner of the Metro supermarket in the area, buys 85 per cent of his goods from Israel. Tunnel traders often bring in counterfeit goods and products that are past the expiry date, he said, but “I am obliged to depend on the tunnels to buy Egyptian goods, especially dairy products that are cheaper than Israeli products. Only 10 per cent of my customers can afford to shop without comparing prices,” he added.

Before merchandise can reach the market, Gaza officials demand to see three documents: an import permit, an income tax declaration and a customs approval form. Goods that have passed their expiry dates are not allowed to go through, the officials said.

 

THE TUNNELS AND THE SIEGE: Visitors entering Gaza through the Salaheddin border crossing can see Egyptian soldiers on their left manning watch posts behind barbed wire, but looking to the right it is easy to see the tents erected to cover the shafts of the tunnels.

Egypt does not officially recognise that the tunnels exist, though it tolerates their existence for fear of starving the Palestinians, a Foreign Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. The result is that this form of tax-free commerce is doubly profitable for the operators of the tunnels. On the Egyptian side, the tunnels usually start from inside private homes or gardens.

The Hamas government in Gaza has made efforts to regulate the tunnels. A licence for operating a tunnel costs $2,500, said Samir Abu Mdallala, president of the College of Economy and Management Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

The Hamas government also taxes all incoming goods and collects fees for the passage of individuals.

One fifth of Hamas government revenues, or $200 million from a total budget of $1 billion, comes from the tunnels, said Abu Mdallala. The cost of building one tunnel ranges from between $25,000 and $250,000.

Gaza has a land area of 370 sq km, and it shares 14km of borders with Egypt. If this area is added to that of the West Bank, on which the Palestinians wish to set up their independent state, the total is only 20 per cent of the original size of Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

The first tunnel between Egypt and Gaza was built in 1983. At first, the tunnels were used to smuggle weapons for the use of the Palestinian resistance, Abu Mdallala said. When Israel started its siege of the Gaza Strip, it closed down the seven crossing points that provided Gaza with its needs. At the time, the total number of tunnels was only 20. Later on, Israel opened the Abu Salem Crossing, which only allows 120 trucks to go through every day, whereas Gaza needs 700 trucks on average if it is to meet its import needs. As a result, the crossing only provided some 25 per cent of local needs.

Israel started its siege of Gaza in 2006 after the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, a short form of the organisation’s name in Arabic, won the legislative elections, defeating Fatah. Israel tightened its siege on Gaza in 2007 after Hamas fought with Fatah and expelled the latter group from Gaza. Around the same time, Egypt closed the Rafah Crossing, and the resulting blockade caused a famine in Gaza.

In 2008, nearly 750,000 Palestinians broke through the Egyptian border in a bid to buy their needs. Commenting on this incident, the then Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, inaugurating a book fair in Cairo at the time, said that the Palestinians could come into Egypt as long as they were not armed.

Since then, the number of tunnels has increased tremendously. One recent estimate put their number at 1,500. More than 60 per cent of Gaza’s $1.5 billion of imports go through the tunnels. The rest go through Israel and the Karm Abu Salem Crossing, which is controlled by Israel. Meanwhile, the Rafah Crossing is strictly for people only and is not for trade.

According to economist Moeen Rajab, it is hard to estimate the amount of trade that goes through the tunnels, although it must be close to $1 billion annually. Trade through the tunnels fluctuates according to the political situation. It goes up when Israel closes the Karm Abu Salem Crossing, he said, “which happens a lot,” and it goes down when Egypt cracks down on the tunnels, sending prices soaring in Gaza as a result.

 

THE DIGGING CONTINUES: As more tunnels are built, competition has made the business less profitable than it was before. One worker said that the first step to building a tunnel was to find a willing partner on the Egyptian side.

Most workers were reluctant to discuss the building of the tunnels, but a few were willing to offer a technical description. One said that the first step was to dig a shaft: a hole of about 1.5 metres in diameter is dug, and then the dirt is moved into a large sack that is pulled away, usually by a horse. This sack is then emptied, brought back, and refilled with displaced sand.

Workers then line the dug part with cement and wait till it dries. Then more digging takes place, until a shaft of about 20 metres deep or so has been constructed. At this point, work on the horizontal part of the tunnel begins, which is even harder. “You need a map and coordinates; if not, you may run into other tunnels,” the workers said. The horizontal corridor of the tunnel is lined with wooden planks.

The tunnel workers seemed unaware of the reports that the Egyptians have flooded the tunnels. “Until a few days ago, work was going on around the clock,” one of them said. Another worker said that work usually started late on Fridays, but otherwise business was going on as usual and the place was “full of trucks transporting merchandise”.

Inside Gaza, the inhabitants didn’t seem to be aware of the alleged flooding either. Umm Sobhi, 32, a housewife and the mother of seven, said that “we heard about the flooding of the tunnels, but I haven’t noticed that in the market. In fact, the prices of some goods have either gone down in the past few months or stayed the same.”

According to Umm Sobhi, the price of a 3kg container of Egyptian corn oil has gone down from 22 shekels (LE44) to 18 shekels (LE36). The price of pasta has gone down from eight shekels to five shekels. And various types of cheese, canned tuna and rice remain more or less the same, she said. “I believe that the reports about flooding the tunnels are for public consumption in Egypt,” her husband said.

 

TRADE IN CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS: There are signs that in late June the tunnel trade slowed down considerably. Tunnel owners said that the Egyptian army had closed down the tunnels in preparation for the 30 June demonstrations in Egypt, which deposed Morsi.

Sayed Abu Shamala, who owns a construction company, said that as soon as the tunnels were closed, the price of building materials doubled on the spot. The price of a tonne of cement, he said, had gone up from 410 to 820 shekels. “I am not complaining. Only I was hoping that such a measure [the closure of the tunnels] would be announced officially. You know that whenever anything goes wrong [in Egypt], we take the blame,” Abu Shamala remarked.

Building materials are essential for Gaza’s survival. Abu Mohamed, who is knowledgeable about the construction market, said that there were about 50 tunnels dedicated to the transportation of building materials alone. Israel doesn’t allow building materials through the Karm Abu Salem Crossing except for the use of international organisations involved in relief work, and this is not enough to meet Gaza’s needs.

The demand for construction materials in Gaza is significant because of the constant shelling of the Strip by Israeli rockets, which destroys or damages buildings. “Until recently, Israel didn’t permit any building materials into Gaza, fearing they could be used to manufacture weapons. Israel also prevents the entry of other raw materials. The aim is to strangle industry and keep the Palestinians unemployed and unproductive,” Rajab said.

Nearly 2,000 tonnes of gravel and a similar amount of cement go into Gaza every day. Gaza is now also importing Turkish iron reinforcement rods because the quality of Egyptian ones has gone down, according to industry specialists. In Gaza, buildings need to be properly reinforced in order “to resist the bullets and shrapnel,” said construction specialist Abu Mohamed. He pointed out that the Palestinians were also importing fewer iron bars than before because they had learned how to salvage them from destroyed buildings.

Tunnels dedicated to the transport of building materials are adapted to this special function. Near to the tunnel, a large hole, covering perhaps an area of 25 square metres, is used to store the materials until the authorities approve their transportation. An electric crane operated by large generators is used to lift the material. Usually, the crane is able to bring up three laden barrels of material, each weighing about 50kg a time. Inside the tunnel, these barrels are placed on a wooden strip and pulled on rails from one side of the border to the other.

Because of the considerable amounts of building materials going into the Gaza Strip, construction work can be done relatively fast. There was no trace of the widespread destruction caused by the Israeli shelling in November 2012 on a recent visit, for example, though this had still been in evidence in early 2013.

 

PERILOUS WORK: Jihad, a 20-year-old Palestinian, is a slim man who doesn’t strike one as being particularly strong. Yet, he is one of several workers hauling the barrels up and placing them in the large hole. “Work in the tunnels is very tiring and dangerous,” he said, “but I left my regular construction work and came to work here.”

Construction work was irregular, but work in the tunnels was available every day, and the pay was better, he said. Jihad earned 14 shekels per tonne of gravel and ended up with almost 140 shekels (LE240) at the end of the day. It was for this reason that he was determined to stay in the job despite the danger.

Some tunnels cave in because they are not properly reinforced. Others collapse because of Israeli shelling. “I saw three of my friends blown to pieces after a rocket hit a tunnel close to where I was working in the recent eight-day war. It is scary, but what can you do?” he asked. 

There are about 4,000 Palestinians working in the tunnels, and 200 of them died during their work last year, a larger number than the casualties of Israel’s last war on Gaza. Israel waged an onslaught on Gaza beginning on 14 November 2012, which lasted for eight days. According to Hamas government figures, 189 civilians were killed, including 18 children under the age of five. The war ended with an Egyptian-brokered deal stipulating an end to the shelling by both sides.

A few steps away from the construction materials tunnel, the air was thick with the stench of dead animals. Chickens had been dumped near the plastic cages used to transport poultry. A nearby tunnel looked different from the one used to transport the construction supplies. This one sloped upwards near the end, and it had a lower roof. A man working in the tunnel, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that chickens often suffocated from the heat during their 30-minute trip in the tunnel.

The chicken cages were transported from one side of the border to the other by pulling them on rails.

This tunnel is also used to transport fish, for which there is now great demand in Gaza after Israel reneged on an agreement allowing fishermen to work within six miles of the shore. Now fishing is only allowed within three miles, which means that the fishermen bring back less fish to the local market.

Israel began restricting the fishing zone at the same time it assassinated Salafi militant Haitham Al-Meshaal. The assassination was carried out in north Gaza last April. The Israeli internal intelligence service Shabak ordered the assassination of Al-Meshaal, who was 29, because of the latter’s expertise in the manufacturing of explosives. The slain man was also said to have taken part in firing missiles at Israeli cities.

In 1993, when Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) signed an agreement on Palestinian self-rule in Washington, the Palestinians were allowed to fish within 20 miles from the shore. Now, their fishermen are confined to three miles from the shore, and the inhabitants of Gaza say that they are often awakened by the sound of warning shots fired by the Israelis to keep the fishing boats within the three-mile limit.

 

ARAB IDOL: Gaza’s inhabitants are proud of the triumph of their homeboy Mohamed Assaf in the recent Arab Idol competition, a knock-off of the American talent show. The excitement of Assaf’s win was not just because he is from Gaza, but because of the adventure he made to reach the competition venue in Beirut.

Assaf had to cross the Rafah Crossing, and then hop onto a plane from Egypt that arrived late in Beirut. It was only by a miracle that he made it into the competition at all. This bit of luck is uncommon for most Palestinians of his age. Egypt, for example, bans anyone aged 18-40 from using the Rafah Crossing. Hamas also places travel restrictions on the Strip’s inhabitants, especially those who are not members of the movement. As a result, Gaza is almost a prison.

Anyone who wishes to travel through the tunnels has to pay a fee that has recently gone down from $200 to $50, said Abu Ziad, a resident of Arish who works in a travel agency. But to be allowed to travel, that person has to get the permission of the Hamas government, he added.

Asked for permission to see a tunnel used to transport people, the operators of the tunnels refused. “Hamas is very strict about the tunnels, and we don’t want trouble,” one of them said. One man, who identified himself as Abu Maamoun, said that although travellers tend to use the tunnels that have been especially equipped for human transport, tunnels used for merchandise are also occasionally used by humans as well.

“A man can be lowered in a cargo box inside the tunnel about 20 metres below ground, and then he can walk all the way to Egypt,” Abu Maamoun said. Another man, identifying himself as Abu Khalil, said that some of the tunnels were for the transport of vehicles, these being notably larger than others.

 

ORDINARY SADNESS: The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once published a collection entitled Days of Ordinary Sadness. Had he been alive today, he may have had to write another one to keep up with the accumulating hardships of Gaza’s inhabitants. 

Driving on the 45km Salaheddin Road that runs from the Erez Crossing in the north to Rafah in the south, one reads the billboards as if reading from a book of sadness. On the billboards, you are introduced to the faces and names of the dozens of young men and children killed by Israeli missiles in the many wars Israel has waged against Gaza. Some of them died in the 2008 offensive, and some in the 2012 offensive, and so on.

A large picture of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, perhaps the only one that Hamas hasn’t yet removed, bears the slogan “my dream cannot be complete without you, Jerusalem.” A Fatah official said that Hamas had more or less removed anything that signalled the presence of Fatah in Gaza. “Even the street names have been changed,” he said.

Referring to the image of Arafat, the official said that “it is a dream that we haven’t achieved. We have no Jerusalem. And we have no state either.”

 After the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, demonstrators went to Gaza to call for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Some of the young activists designed a billboard combining photos of Arafat and Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. The billboard is still on display about three km from the Arafat picture.

On the Salaheddin Road, one can also see billboards advertising American products, such as Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, which come to Gaza through the tunnels. America’s bias towards Israel doesn’t seem to have deterred familiar consumption patterns. There was also a sign in an empty plot announcing, “Qatari project for low-income housing.” This was a project that could only be completed with building materials brought in through the tunnels, Abu Maamoun said.

The Arab Contractors, a company owned by the Egyptian government, signed a cooperation agreement with the Gaza Reconstruction Committee in January for this project, and Qatar gave a grant of $400 million to build it. The former emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, announced the deal during a visit to Gaza earlier this year, this being the first visit by an Arab head of state to Gaza under Hamas rule

The visit turned out to be controversial. Some people expressed the fear “that the emir of Qatar came to Gaza not to launch reconstruction projects but to put the final touches on the creation of an ‘emirate of Gaza under the control of Hamas’,” Ibrahim Ibrash, a Gaza-based political scientist, told the Xinhua news agency.

On the right-hand side of the gate leading to the tunnel area stands the Ibn Taymiya Mosque, the site of bloody battles four years ago. On 14 August 2009, the imam of this mosque, Abdel-Latif Moussa, a member of the jihadist organisation Jund Ansarullah, declared Gaza to be an Islamic state. The next day, Hamas stormed the mosque and Moussa and several of his associates were killed in the ensuing fighting.

Abu Khalil, a guide to the area, also recalled the abduction of Egyptian diplomat Hossam Al-Museli seven years ago. On 10 February 2006, a group called the Battalion of the Free held Al-Museli captive for two days at the Mosaab Bin Omeir Mosque, which is located on the Salaheddin Road. Rumour had it that Hamas had arranged the kidnapping as a way of pressuring Egypt into admitting its victory in the legislative elections.

In several public squares in Gaza, there are also signs announcing a National Campaign for the Fight Against Tramal. The campaign was launched only days before in an attempt by the government to hinder addiction to tramal, or tramadol, a drug.

Robin, who works as a driver, said that some young people, especially those working in the tunnels, use tramal to alleviate their physical and psychological problems. One pill of tramal sells for five shekels (LE10) on the black market, he said. During a tour of the market, it was noticeable that the police were searching buildings. Upon inquiry, it was said that they were looking for smuggled tramal.

 

WHAT ARE THE ALTERNATIVES?: Few would deny that the tunnels have caused problems for both Egypt and Gaza. But what is the solution to these problems? Some, including supermarket entrepreneur Nabil Al-Yazji and economist Moeen Rajab, believe that Egypt and Gaza should create a free-trade area, for example.

Abu Mdallala, however, said that the creation of a trade zone between Egypt and Gaza could increase divisions among the Palestinians and complicate national reconciliation. It could even help Israel to relegate Gaza’s problems to Egypt, something it has been hoping to do for years, he pointed out.

Yasser Othman, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel, has also said that a trade zone could add to the area’s problems rather than solve them. A few months ago, citing security reasons, the Egyptian army rejected a Hamas proposal for the creation of a free-trade zone.

According to Abu Mdallala, the best solution to the tunnels problem is to pressure Israel into ending the siege on Gaza. Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas could also help ease this situation, he added. Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, chief of the Cairo-based Al-Gomhuriya Centre for Security and Political Studies and Research, also recently said that the opening of the crossings would not harm Egypt as much as the tunnels. 

Seif Al-Yazal called on Hamas to close the tunnels because of the threat they posed to Egyptian national security. The only way to help Gaza was for it to clear its name on the international scene and for it to be provided with serious development aid, he stated.

 

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