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Dangerous Smuggling Trade: The Tunnel Kings of Gaza

By Ulrike Putz in Gaza

Gasoline, rice, light bulbs, Viagra, even brides: most things can be smuggled into the closed-off Gaza Strip through tunnels dug under the Egyptian border. Entrepreneur smugglers make a fortune from the region's economic crisis -- but it can be a deadly business for the tunnel diggers.

"Buy," the smuggler shouts into his cell phone. "If the sheep are healthy, take them, eighty today, hundred tomorrow. We can drive them through the small tunnel tonight, no problem." He goes on talking, at one point holding conversations on two phones at the same time.

He orders hundreds of gas canisters, rejects overpriced sunflower oil. "I'm sorry," says the man who wears a long beard of the type worn by devout Muslims as he turns back to his visitors. "As you see business is going more than well, it's going excellently!"

We're in the home of Abu Hisham, one of the tunnel kings of Gaza. His multi-storey house is in Rafah within sight of the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt. Under the sandy ground the house is built on lies the source of Abu Hisham's wealth: smugglers' tunnels through which the Palestinians circumvent the embargo Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip.

Since June 2006, when Hamas violently seized power in Gaza, hardly any goods have been allowed into the sealed off territory. The flow of goods has increased from a trickle to small stream since the ceasefire between radical Islamic group Hamas and Israel. But Gaza still doesn't get enough goods. The everyday life of Palestinians is still marked by scarcity, which is precisely what gives some of them the chance to make business deals of a lifetime.

The history of Abu Hisham's family is synonymous with the history of smuggling in the Gaza Strip. His grandfather set up the business in the 1980s, during the first Intifada, when he built the first tunnel and brought weapons into Gaza. A smuggled Kalashnikov would fetch up to $4,000. "That was a golden age," says his grandson.

From Bandits to Role Models

During the first Intifada and as long as the war raged between Hamas and Fatah, masses of guns were smuggled to Gaza from Egypt through underground tunnels. "In those days we smugglers were regarded as bandits, as criminals," says Abu Hisham as he hands out sweet tea. The gun trade has slumped since Hamas won the power struggle in the Gaza Strip. It's hard to make money with guns because the arsenals of the radical Palestinian organisations are plentifully stocked. That view is backed up by the assessment of international observers. "We're respected because we provide people with what they need to live," says Abu Hisham." These days, he says, every little boy wants to become a smuggler.

Some 750 tunnels have been dug under the border. The figure is known pretty exactly because the Rafah town council decided it wanted a piece of the action and last month forced all the tunnelers to register and start paying a tax of €2,000 per tunnel per year.

The days when the tunnels of Gaza were shrouded in mystery are long gone. Up until a few months ago anyone asking questions about the underground stream of goods into Gaza encountered a wall of silence. Today the people of Rafah readily reveal what they know about the tunnel trade: for example, that the smuggled goods are transported in plastic trays attached to each other like the pearls of a necklace, and are hauled through the tunnels by engines. Or that anything can be brought into Gaza this way if there's a market for it -- dissembled motorbikes, Viagra, perfume. Around 20 pipelines have been laid, and diesel and gasoline are pumped into Gaza through them. Even brides have been known to crawl through the tunnels to their weddings.

A normal tunnel is 800 to 1,400 meters long, says Abu Hisham. On the Palestinian side they are usually dug from ruined buildings or equipment sheds. From there, working parties of six men start digging their way towards the Egypt at a depth of 15 to 30 meters. A contact on the Egyptian side signals where the exit can be dug. It takes around six months to dig a tunnel. "It costs me $100,000 to get a ready-to-use tunnel, including bribes," says Abu Hisham. But he quickly recoups the outlay. He estimates that he currently earns $25,000 a month.

Deadly Work for Laborers

A few hours later, a few streets away. Mohammed sits in front of a run-down house. He has sand under his fingernails from the tunnel he has just crawled out of. There's a mud-caked bandage around his foot. He injured himself a few days ago when a jackhammer slipped out of his hands. "The tunnel owners are the only winners," the 21-year-old says bitterly. He is the foreman of a working party and has been digging for the past eight months. During that time two of his friends died underground. One was electrocuted, the other was killed when the Egyptians released poison gas into his tunnel. Mohammed was there when the gas canisters burst. "We heard the explosion and crawled back as fast as we could. Imad was behind us, the gas got him." He says a short prayer, and also includes the two men who died last night. A few hours ago a pressurised canister exploded in one of the tunnels, two men died and five suffered severe burns.

Accidents, the treacherous sand, the sporadic Egyptian efforts to stop the smuggling. These days it's no longer Israeli attacks that pose a daily threat to the tunnelers. For the last few months Israel has been virtually ignoring the smuggling activity. It's no secret that Israel wants to transfer responsibility for the Gaza Strip to the Egyptians. The tunnel trade paves the way for this process and is being tolerated as a result.

"My work is death, I won't survive," says Mohammed grimly.

Next to him, his father wipes his moist eyes with a handkerchief. "I had a sewing business with several employees making clothes," the father says. But the embargo stopped the supply of cloth and he had to shut down, like most businesses in Gaza. Economic life has come to a virtual standstill in Gaza and smuggling is the only flourishing business. For young men like Mohammed, building tunnels is the only opportunity to feed their families. They are lured with promises of daily wages of up to $150. "But that's just in theory," says Mohammed. In reality the tunnel owners often don't pay up. "They're a mafia, they arrange everything among themselves."

Economy on Life Support

The tunnels of Gaza. Some get rich, others at least get laborers' jobs. Life has become easier for consumers, the price of gasoline has halved to €3 per liter since the pipelines were installed. "But they don't have a positive impact on the severe economic crisis," says Hamad Bayari, an analyst at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha). "The overwhelming majority of problems in Gaza is related to the lack of goods. The closure of the goods transit points is an effective weapon Israel is using to increase pressure."

According to the UN, the situation is continuing to deteriorate despite the ceasefire. "The mere end of violence isn't a gift, it's a human right," says Bayari. The people of Gaza haven't received what they were promised in exchange for the ceasefire. The goods transit points are open almost daily these days but Gaza isn't getting the goods it needs for a real improvement of the situation. "It's all well and good that the humanitarian supplies are getting through. But Gaza isn't Somalia or Darfur."

What Gaza urgently needs is an economic revival, says Bayari. Israel supplies soap but prevents the Palestinian soap factories from making their own. "Due to the lack of raw materials and spare parts all but 100 of the 3,900 factories in the Gaza Strip have had to close." Unemployment now stands at 49 percent. "The men sit at home and can't work. Thousands of families live from handouts," says Bayari. The poverty foments aggression. "If Israel doesn't soon open the taps and let Gaza go to work again, the ceasefire won't hold," says the analyst. The fighting then, he fears, "will be more violent than ever."

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