New Internationalist

Tunnel fever

Just outside the city of Rafah – in the extreme south of the Gaza Strip – is a beaten down, bedraggled stretch of land bordering Egypt. Thousands of Gazans live along this frontier, adjacent to the border fence which is fortified with barbed wire and observation towers, where Egyptian troops watch for Gazan smugglers. At the beginning of this year Hamas blew up part of the border fence, and hundreds of thousands of Gazans poured into northern Egypt. When the Egyptians re-sealed the border, they also amassed thousands of troops to control the area– so the Gazans literally went underground.

Digging tunnels under the border from Gaza to Egypt is a well-established business. No-one knows exactly how many tunnels lie between Gaza and Egypt: but there are hundreds of kilometres of subterranean tunnels snaking beneath the Egyptian border. With the six border crossings into the Gaza Strip still almost continuously closed, business at the tunnels is booming. Every day the Gazan tunnel smugglers bring thousands of dollars worth of goods into the Strip: everything from food to medicine, narcotics, clothes, washing machines, and Viagra.

It’s easy to find the tunnels – you drive to Rafah, park your car a couple of hundred metres from the border, and walk. You’ll immediately see huge mounds of earth, numerous sheds, plus tractors and dozens of workmen. This is now a sprawling industrial zone. You can hear generators rumbling as the tunnelers carve into the ground. We knocked on the door of one shed, and were allowed to come in and see the tunnel, as long as we didn’t take photos.

I peered down the shaft, which was several metres wide and looked well constructed. There was an electric winch to lower the men down, and hoist the goods up. How deep is it, I asked one of the men who’d gathered round us. ‘Fifteen metres’ he told me (they were happy to answer questions but didn’t want to give their names). He told me he was from Rafah, but his colleagues – all young men – were from right across the Gaza Strip. These tunnels are now Gaza’s most successful business.

I asked them what they smuggle in from Egypt. Sheep and cows they told me, which left me momentarily speechless. Cows!  - Through a tunnel! But they meant calves: they hoist the animals down the shaft in Egypt, herd them through 600 metres of tunnel, and then hoist them up into Gaza. They sell the sheep for $120 each and the calves for $150. There are ten men working full time at this tunnel, and even though they have to pay tunnel taxes to Hamas (who police and regulate the tunnels), it is still a very lucrative business.       

It is also a dangerous business. At least 42 men have suffered horrific deaths inside the tunnels this year, most of them suffocating when a tunnel collapsed on top of them. But the Egyptian authorities have also been accused of pouring water, and gas, down tunnels, as well as deliberately collapsing tunnels to force the smugglers out of business.              

The men I spoke to were incredibly unsympathetic towards those who had died underground. ‘Look, you have to invest in your tunnel’ said another. ‘You construct it from good materials, you pay your taxes to Hamas and then you make your profit. But some stupid people build cheap tunnels from rubbish materials, and then they pay the real price.’ He said this 600 metre tunnel cost $90,000 to complete. It has beds, electricity and even air conditioning.   

An older man who seemed to be in charge of this operation told me the workers make about $120 a day each, which is a fantastic salary in Gaza. ‘But if Israel opens the borders, our business will be finished’ he said. And there lies the inherent, ugly irony of these tunnels: the longer Gaza stays locked up by Israel, the more money these men, and their families, will make. They have invested in the closure, and become the new profiteers of this dirty, illegal siege.

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