What does a Gazan "snakehead" (or smuggling-tunnel owner) have in common with a drug dealer working for the Mexican cartel? Both have profit margins of around 400 percent: A Gazan snakehead can build a tunnel for $40,000 and make up to $200,000 each day; likewise, the wholesale price for a kilo of cocaine in America can run between $15,000 and $25,000 (depending on the seller's proximity to the Mexican border) and can fetch around $90,000. And both represent a seemingly unfixable border problem between two countries.
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, David Luhnow makes a compelling case that "to weaken the cartels, some argue that the US should legalize marijuana, let cocaine pass through the Caribbean and take the profit motive out of the drug trade." Israel cannot do the same in Gaza; it cannot permit the free-flow of weapons, and it has taken effective means of reducing the supply. But as long as profit margins remain high for the smugglers, goods remain scarce because of the Israeli-Egyptian blockade, and consumer demand remains unchanged, Gaza's smuggling industry will remain lucrative.
Moreover, Gaza's underground economy is extremely diverse. It is not just weapons being smuggled through tunnels, and the smugglers are savvy businessmen, varying their cargo to meet demand: perfumes, cigarettes, drugs, fugitives (going rate $2,000 per trip), cows and even lions (three are now a part of the Rafah zoo).
SO WHAT can Israel learn from Mexico and its dealings with the drug cartel?
Luhnow provides a possible solution: "If the war on drugs [in Mexico] has failed, it is partly because it has been waged almost entirely as a law-and-order issue, without understanding of how cartels work as a business... We've been attacking the players rather than attacking the industry. We need to focus on shrinking their markets and raising their operating costs."
Israel has been shrinking the markets in Gaza by utilizing precision air strikes on tunnels (Israel estimates that 80% of the tunnels were destroyed during Operation Cast Lead), intercepting Iranian munitions destined for Gaza and encouraging the construction of Egypt's underground iron wall. Yet these military solutions are unstable in the long run and will force the Gazan population to support Hamas, if only out of desperation. In other words, by dealing with the tunneling problem exclusively by means of force and firepower, instead of by economic means, Israel is bypassing a tremendous opportunity to win the support of the Gazan population.
Hamas's popular support is unprecedentedly low. Just this week, Hamas staged a heavily publicized rally marking the one-year anniversary of Cast Lead, but was frustrated by poor turnout and lack of civil support. If public opinion polls mean anything in Gaza, 58% of Gazans have said they disapprove of the job being done by Hamas, while 42% "disapproved strongly," according to the Israel Project.
Further proof of Hamas's dwindling support comes from the tunnel business itself: There are rumors that Hamas makes millions of dollars each year by administering unofficial "tunnel taxes" to ensure that the industry does not become too privatized, fearful that it would lead to further distance between the Islamic movement and the general population.
THUS, ISRAEL has an unprecedented opportunity to enter the Gazan market and uproot Hamas as a popular movement by easing the blockade and offering goods (possibly through NGOs) to Gazans at a lower price than the smugglers charge. Perhaps it can even "employ" the smugglers, thereby removing the serious risks associated with tunneling, whether by aerial attack or tunnel collapse. This, in turn, could reduce the smugglers' will to import weapons, because these would represent unnecessary risk. In the long run, it might even reduce the extremely high birthrate and dangerous "youth bulge" (or demographic bomb) by easing the high unemployment levels and encouraging Gazans to be more career-oriented.
Israel stands to gain both financially and politically from this move, since it has been negatively affected by the closure of Gaza as well: The New York Times, using Israeli estimates, says Israeli businesses are losing $2 million a day from the closure.
The results will not be immediate, but the possibility for an effective, new approach is enticing. Given Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's fiscal prowess, this might be the perfect time to try a much-ignored economic approach to the crisis in Gaza.
The writer is a senior at New York University majoring in philosophy.