Have tunnels made the siege irrelevant?

Tunnels between Gaza and Egypt bring in gas, weapons, livestock and more.

Gaza smuggling tunnel 311 (photo credit: Ashley Bates)
Gaza smuggling tunnel 311
(photo credit: Ashley Bates)
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.
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 materials.
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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 land.
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.
Historically, such tunnels have been used by Palestinian terrorist forces to hide and smuggle fighters, weapons, tools, secret messages, documents and a wide array of goods.
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 generator.
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.
Approaching a 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 talking.
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 families.
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.
The owners 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 living inside.
Critics argue that the Hamas government legitimizes the tunnel trade by granting licenses for a fee to owners.
But Hamas 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.
The 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.
“Now only 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 flourishing.
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.
Unlike 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 current demand.
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 get through.
“Drugs are banned,” he says. “Whether smuggled or entered legally, drug dealers will be prosecuted and tracked no matter where they get their drugs.”
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 businessmen.”
Conversing with the workers, after some time, they begin to show more trust, speaking more freely and even revealing their faces.
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 weeks.”
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 humanitarian aid.”
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 you heard of the shortage of supplies? Haven’t you heard about the lack of the building materials? Some claim that Hamas puts cement and building materials entering Gaza through the tunnels in storage to then resell it later.
The Israeli Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center (ITIC) claims that Hamas uses several methods to obtain cement. The tunnel smuggling industry is the most common.
According to ITIC Hamas also manufactures construction materials, including cement and concrete, in closely supervised factories using locally available raw materials (such as fly ash and sea sand); Hamas makes use of construction materials by dismantling formerly-populated Israeli buildings abandoned during the disengagement; and Hamas hoards cement imported to the Gaza Strip as part of aid delivered by international organizations.