The following report originally appeared in our January 28, 2009 issue.
SPECIAL REPORT | WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING
“If you wish to become a millionaire in Gaza, own a tunnel and smuggle goods including food, Viagra, alcohol, weapons and even a bride.”
JANUARY 28, 2009. – Mona Farah is a journalist for the Kuwaiti Arabic language publication Al Qabas. Recently she wrote a remarkable story about Gaza’s infamous tunnels and what they mean to the Palestinians living in Gaza, both as a source of employment and as a means to smuggle goods. Here’s a translation of some of what she had to say.
Since 2006, after Hamas won the legislative elections in the Gaza Strip, and the subsequent siege and the closure of the crossings, more than 95% of the goods sold in the markets of Gaza pass through the tunnels.
Gaza residents started digging tunnels in the early eighties in order to smuggle goods from Egypt. In the nineties, the tunnels were exploited by armed Palestinian groups in order to bring weapons into Gaza. After the withdrawal of the Israeli army from Gaza [in 2005] the excavation work became much easier.
The tunnels are a world within themselves and are not without risks. 1,200 people died last year [working in the tunnels]. Everything is smuggled through them. From boxes of biscuits and diapers to food, medicine, clothing and footwear, electrical appliances, household fuel, weapons and motor vehicles and fertilizers which can be used in the manufacture of improvised explosive devices. People, both dead and alive are also transported through the tunnels. Goods such as drugs and hard currency are also smuggled [into Gaza] as well as prohibited goods such as alcohol and Viagra.
Hamas takes a percentage of the profits that accrue to traders smuggling the goods, and at the same time, has 100 per cent monopoly on many of the tunnels.
How to dig a tunnel for US$15,000-$60,000
The construction of a tunnel, takes about five to eight months of continuous employment. The distance from the Egyptian border, and the distance into Gaza are determined by the total cost, estimated between US$15,000-$60,000. Half of the cost is paid to the home-owners living above the tunnels, and the remainder is to pay for supplies, drilling equipment, workers and engineers.
After searching for a house or a point close to the border area and measurements are taken, digging commences with a vertical 13 metres shaft, followed horizontally in the direction of Egypt. The construction of several rooms within the tunnel also take place. During the process there is always the fear of falling sand. After the tunnel reaches the Egyptian border, a metal skewer is pushed vertically to the surface in Egypt where people on the Egyptian side of the border commence to dig a vertical shaft connecting the opening to the tunnel.
There are tunnels under the houses in Gaza that are believed to have a military function, and this may explain the magnitude of the devastation caused recently by the Israelis. There was a large amount of arms smuggled through the tunnels and it was said that warehouses were filled with weapons. And then there are those smugglers who sell arms to other countries.
Reports indicate that Israel managed to destroy 50% of the estimated 850 tunnels, each one of which extends 700 metres to one kilometre in length. Builders are keen to build more tunnels so that the smuggling operations can continue in the event of additional Israeli raids or Egypt’s actions in closing one of the openings. You can identify some of the openings from a distance of 200 metres, as white plastic tents cover the holes for fear of rain water and soil erosion filling the tunnel.
40% of the profits go to Hamas
Since thousands of Palestinians work in the construction of the tunnels and in the smuggling trade, the Hamas government was prompted to organize and control this industry by taking 40 per cent of the profit from the smuggling operations.
It is estimated that the income made by the owner of a tunnel is at least US$50,000 per month
If you visit Rafah you will see modern luxury cars, and luxury homes acquired by the inhabitants of the region. It is said if you want to become a millionaire, own/dig a tunnel.
Farah adds that smuggling takes place only because of the economic conditions [in Gaza]. The Palestinians in Gaza say they did not resort to this profession for adventure or entertainment. Most of those who were working inside Israel lost their jobs after their work permits were cancelled and the crossings closed.
Young people between the ages of 17 and 35 years work in constructing the tunnels each of whom earns about US$100 for every one square meter built. The tools required to manually build a tunnel from beginning to end, consist of drilling equipment, baskets for the transfer of the soil, a generator for lighting the tunnel excavation, and wires that work the pulleys which will pull the goods transported through the tunnels.
According to Palestinian sources, more than 1,000 people have entered the Gaza Strip through tunnels [originating] in Egypt It has happened more than once that the tunnels have been used to transport a bride or groom from Rafah to Egypt or vice-versa. The tunnels have also been used to transport a dead body. The individual may have spent all of his life in Egypt without identification papers but wanted to be buried in Palestine. Wounded resistance fighters hurt in an operation against Israel have also used the tunnels as a means of acquiring treatment in Egypt.
Farah’s original article can be read in its entirety at: http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Article.aspx?id=468311&date=27012009
(Photo credits: Propa Images and Al Qabas)
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