The interdiction of a Gaza-bound flotilla by Israeli forces thrust the issue of
the humanitarian situation facing Gaza’s citizens into the center of world
attention. Demonstrations in world capitals have focused on the Israeli blockade
imposed when Hamas forcibly took control of the area in 2007. Israel maintains
the embargo does not apply to humanitarian goods including medicines, although
Palestinians refute the Israeli claim.
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This has led Gazans to search for
ways of getting around the blockade, and to the development of a network of
tunnels between Gaza and Egypt, which brings in everything from livestock and
cigarettes to gas, weapons and, some contend, cement and other building
To what extent has Gaza’s tunnel trade actually succeeded in
breaking through Israel’s blockade, de facto ending the humanitarian crisis? On
the Egyptian end of the tunnels there are multiple openings so that if
authorities shut one down, another can still be used. On the other side of the
border, in the Palestinian city of Rafah, lies a stretch of barren
This is the dangerous tunnel zone, where only tunnel workers dare
go and a handful of courageous journalists.
Negotiating with the owners
to gain access to the tunnels is a lengthy ordeal. But eventually The Media Line
was able to obtain permission to venture into one of them.
such tunnels have been used by Palestinian terrorist forces to hide and smuggle
fighters, weapons, tools, secret messages, documents and a wide array of
The tunnels themselves are made with particular uses in mind. For
smuggling people a special type of tunnel is designed with lighting,
electricity, oxygen tanks and small electric carriages.
Fuel, on the
other hand, requires deep tunnels so that a wide carriage can carry the heavy
weight of the gas, petrol and other types of fuel tanks, which are pulled by
electrical wire from one side of the tunnel to the other.
There are even
a few tunnels constructed for cars, also very wide and deep. The car is placed
atop metal plates and pulled by a high-powered electric
Commodities like chocolate, for instance, must come in through
the tunnels. Shoppers can still find dozens of different kinds of chocolate of
varying brands, tastes and prices in Gaza. The price ranges between 0.5 shekels
to 12 shekels per bar, depending on the size and brand. Merchants say that since
the siege on Gaza they can still get a wide or even wider range of chocolates
through the tunnels, and that the prices haven’t changed.
bunch of well-tanned, slim and frail young boys in front of the tunnels, they
give a cold “salam” greeting before quickly walking away to discuss privately
how to respond. After some reassurance the men ease up a bit and start
Most of the tunnel workers are between the ages of 15 to 29.
They are men who couldn’t complete their education or who must provide for their
Normally only one to three workers are hired to dig the entire
tunnel between Gaza and Egypt. Then there are the young boys, who earn a few
measly dollars a day to transport goods through the tunnel. Finally, there are
those assigned by the tunnel owners to manage and supervise the tunnel workers
so the owners do not need to be on site.
“I myself don’t know the owner
of the tunnel I work in,” confirms one of the tunnel workers.
themselves remain mysterious, with claims abounding that they have become filthy
rich through the “tunnel business,” estimated by The Financial Times to be worth
millions of dollars annually.
People in Gaza gossip that these
businessmen have mansions in Rafah city with the latest cars parked outside, and
that no one can trespass on their property unless they personally know those
Critics argue that the Hamas government legitimizes the
tunnel trade by granting licenses for a fee to owners.
spokesman Fawzi Barhoum refuted that claim. “That’s completely untrue, we don’t
give licenses,” he told The Media Line. “We decided not to take a position
towards those owners, so we neither approve nor try to stop these owners from
using or creating tunnels.” Barhoum also contends that Rafah is not a rich city
with an active economy.
“That’s not true, because if it was then this
will widely spread into the whole of Gaza, leading to a refreshed economy and
agriculture and we would have ended the siege, which is obviously not the case
here, as you see.”
Speaking with the tunnel workers, they say that the
daily payment of a few dollars isn’t enough, especially for the hard work they
do, and the risks they take upon themselves, which could result in death. Many
of their colleagues have already died while working in the tunnels.
workers did not deny that a limited quantity of cement enters the tunnels every
now and then.
Joma’a Al-Mallahi is a merchant that has been working in
construction and building materials for many years. He corroborates that his
business is much slower and smaller now than before the siege.
fractions of the quantity that we used to get before the siege enter, and
everything is more expensive,” says Mallahi. “Gaza is witnessing a period of no
building.” Much of the building materials he needs, he must get through the
black market tunnel system.
“We get it [building materials] from the
tunnels,” explains Mallahi. “Some months we get no materials and some months
it’s good enough for us to keep going.” The merchant stresses he wants the siege
to end so that he may return to the days when business was
Gravel is the hardest thing to find in Gaza, since it
doesn’t enter through the tunnels nor through Gaza’s commercial crossings.
Merchants say it’s extremely expensive since it is rarely found in Gaza, and
they could not give an exact price.
Cement must be imported into Gaza
through tunnels, as it is not available on the commercial market.
cement, steel enters Gaza through commercial crossings, so there is no need for
merchants to get it through the tunnels. The price of steel hasn’t changed much
as a result. It goes for 3.5 shekels per kilogram now, compared to 3.2 shekels
before the blockade.
Glass also enters Gaza through commercial crossings,
each meter costing 1.5 shekels. The price also hasn’t changed much since the
siege. Smaller quantities are entering, but merchants say this is enough for the
When it comes to drugs, tunnel workers say they haven’t
seen any pass through the tunnels, although they admit it’s possible these
materials are passing through without their knowledge.
Hamas says they’ve
assigned a committee to supervise what enters the tunnels so that drugs do not
“Drugs are banned,” he says. “Whether smuggled or entered
legally, drug dealers will be prosecuted and tracked no matter where they get
Barhoum denies that any person with the appropriate
resources would be able to build a tunnel.
“Hamas doesn’t try to
interfere in the tunnel building issue, but the previously mentioned committee
has to have the names and number of tunnel owners,” he said. “I can assure you
that they don’t belong to certain families, but [are] owned by individuals and
Conversing with the workers, after some time, they begin to
show more trust, speaking more freely and even revealing their
Proudly, they explain that they have found a way to breach Egypt’s
steel wall, which was built in part to end the tunnel trade. “A heavy powerful
torch is used to melt the steel,” said one of the men. “The process takes three
But do the workers want the siege on Gaza to end, which would
mean the end of their jobs, or do they wish it to continue? After some angry
stares and a private, yet heated discussion among themselves, one man comes
forward to answer this question.
“I can’t imagine my life without this
job, but I do want the siege to end because my country comes first and maybe
after the siege ends I might be able to find a job.”
Then another young
boy emerges from the huddled group. “I don’t want the siege to end,” he shouts.
“I support a family of 11. How will we manage to live if the siege ends and they
closed the tunnels?” Regarding claims from Israel, journalists and locals that
Gaza is bursting with goods and is not in need of humanitarian aid, the Hamas
spokesman responds that UN evidence proves otherwise.
“These rumors are
completely false and Gaza is in need of humanitarian aid, health aid, financial
aid and economic aid while the unjust siege still continues. If you don’t want
to hear Hamas then get back to the Goldstone Report or Mrs. Karen Abu Zeid’s
reports or the UN reports which all assure that Gaza is in bad need of
But Abu Al-Abed Hassaneyah is an owner of a series of
supermarkets in Gaza. He is known as the “Godfather” of this business. “To be
honest with you, my business wasn’t and isn’t affected at all,” said. “I still
get most of the things I need.
“Gaza’s supermarkets only suffered for
small periods where no products were allowed to enter Gaza, but now it’s much
better and I have a full supermarket, as you can see.” In response to the
supermarkets being stocked with many different products and the pharmacies being
nearly full, Barhoum responds that building materials and hospital supplies are
not getting through.
“You can’t make a judgment according to a couple of
supermarkets or pharmacies,” he said. “What about the hospitals? Haven’t
heard of the shortage of supplies? Haven’t you heard about the lack of
building materials? Some claim that Hamas puts cement and building
entering Gaza through the tunnels in storage to then resell it later.
Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) claims that
uses several methods to obtain cement. The tunnel smuggling industry is
According to ITIC Hamas also manufactures construction materials,
including cement and concrete, in closely supervised factories using
available raw materials (such as fly ash and sea sand); Hamas makes use
construction materials by dismantling formerly-populated Israeli
abandoned during the disengagement; and Hamas hoards cement imported to
Strip as part of aid delivered by international organizations.