Tunnels become a lifeline

RAFAH, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - Pickup trucks speed westward on the Barth highway that flanks the Israeli border in Egypt’s North Sinai region, stacked high with cartons of petrol. They are headed “for Gaza,” the Bedouin residents of Barth village say — through the tunnels that burrow under the Egypt-Gaza border and are filling Gaza’s aid gap in the aftermath of Israel’s deadly assault on the territory.

The hundreds of subterranean passages that have fueled Gaza’s economy since its borders were hermetically sealed by Israel and Egypt in 2007 were one of the primary targets of Israel’s three-week codenamed Operation Cast Lead.

Now largely rebuilt in the wake of a war that destroyed much of the strip’s infrastructure and agricultural land, the tunnels that provide Gaza with food, fuel, medicine and other consumer goods may have become even more crucial as an economic lifeline, the World Food Programme (WFP) says.

During the war, economic activity in the Gaza Strip came to a grinding halt. Over 20,000 buildings were destroyed, including many factories. Gaza’s Private Sector Coordinating Council estimates the losses in the private sector as a result of the war to be $1.5 billion.

Since the 18 January ceasefire, Israel has continued to operate its commercial crossings at minimal capacity. Only 35 percent of the $613 million in funding requested by the United Nations (UN) Flash Appeal for Gaza has been received for reconstruction efforts.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that on average 127 aid trucks a day are entering Gaza, compared to 475 per day prior to the Hamas takeover.

“If Israel opened the borders, the tunnel business would end in a second,” says Abu Hussein, a Palestinian who manages a tunnel on the Gaza side of the border. “But what are we supposed to do? These tunnels feed the people, give them what they need and give us jobs.”

Before the war smuggling through tunnels, which the UN said last year was so widespread that it amounted to an industry, was generating some $650 million in cash each year.

Analysts estimate that at least two-thirds of the goods sold across the Gaza Strip come from the tunnels, and that they employ some 12,000 Palestinians from all over the territory. Gaza’s unemployment rate, according to the UN, stood at 45 percent before the war. It is the highest in the world.

During the assault, Rafah’s underground tunnels were pummeled by Israeli bombs for three weeks. Israel claimed its air force destroyed 80 percent of the tunnels, about 600 of them, used by Hamas to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip.

But Palestinians working the tunnels on the Gaza side say while the bombs did damage some of the underground network, they almost always targeted just the entrance of the tunnel and to a depth of just ten meters.

Since the tunnels can reach as deep as 25 meters, rebuilding was simply a matter of digging a new entry point a few meters from the original hole, smugglers say. And the reconstruction began the morning after the ceasefire was called 18 January.

“Before the war, the tunnel began there,” says Abu Hussein, pointing to a hole 10 meters behind him. “It cost about $6,000 to dig again here and reinforce the walls.” The rest of the tunnel, all the way to Egypt, was unscathed.

After the war, food, medical supplies and other goods immediately began to pour in, picking up where the commercial crossings — that allow in only what Israel deems as “essential” — leave off.

Abu Hussein and the dozen or so young Palestinian boys working for him were bringing chocolate out of their tunnel that day, an item Israel considers “non-essential” to life in the Gaza Strip. There was no electricity, so they pulled the goods out of the 20-meter hole manually with a frayed rope.

The underground march of commerce between Egypt and Gaza continues to take place primarily at night to avoid Egyptian security forces, recently provided with state-of-the-art equipment by the US and the European Union (EU) to detect and destroy tunnels.

Everything from sweets and medicine to washing machines are transported after sunset via winding, unlit back roads that link clandestinely the commercial centers of Egypt’s North Sinai to the border town of Rafah. They are then sent underground through passageways dug from people’s basements, backyards and even homes.

At night, both sides of Rafah are alive with the sounds of commerce. The whir of hundreds of generators is punctuated by the cries of animals being herded into and out of the tunnels. The shouts of men calling out instructions and identifying quantities of goods can be heard from both above and below ground.

Sometimes snaking as long as a kilometer under the Philadelphi Corridor — the buffer zone between Gaza and Egypt — the tunnels are regulated with licenses provided by the Hamas-run municipality in Gaza. They are also equipped with electric lighting and electric pulleys, and with telephone lines. Some have cement walls, and are tall enough for tunnel workers to walk upright inside them.

Smugglers in both Egypt and Gaza balk at the assertion that the tunnels have been used solely to arm Hamas, and maintain they have been a decisive factor in keeping Gaza’s battered economy alive, particularly in the post-war period when aid is the most crucial.

It was ironically before Hamas took the Gaza Strip that the majority of the tunnels were used to transport weapons, they say. Now, a Palestinian smuggler named Ahmed says, it is more lucrative for him to move bags of potato chips.

“Smuggling happens all over the world,” Ahmed told IPS. “But the real crime is when you see educated people — doctors, engineers, teachers — forced to do this type of work because they have nothing else.”

Smugglers admit that trade has slowed as a result of Israel’s firepower through the war, but that their work will continue as long as the siege is in place and Gaza’s residents are deprived of what they need.

“Tell the Israelis we are strong, that we have good hearts,” says 20-year-old Salah, as he jumps barefoot into a tunnel to pull out a sack of grain. “We will not stop working, no matter how many wars.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.