x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Roads to riches run deep in Rafah

Underground smuggling channels were semi-legitimised by Hamas to replenish public coffers and improve working conditions.

Essam Suleiman works on a new 25-meter deep tunnel that will run under the border to Egypt to bring through goods to Gaza.
Essam Suleiman works on a new 25-meter deep tunnel that will run under the border to Egypt to bring through goods to Gaza.

RAFAH, GAZA STRIP // It is hard to avoid a sharp intake of breath at the sight of the border strip that divides this southernmost Palestinian town into an Egyptian and Gazan side. What not long ago was a wasteland is now abuzz with activity, with giant tent-clad molehills marking the entrances to an estimated 350 tunnels that provide what the United Nations recently called a "vital lifeline" for Gazans.

A few years ago it would have been impossible to walk here. When Israel controlled the border, an area 100 metres out from the iron wall was cleared of buildings, mostly homes, that were reduced to rubble by bulldozers, leaving no cover from snipers' sights. Locals used to call the area the "red zone". Stick your head out and chances were you would be shot. Now they call the area the "industrial zone". It is bustling, even at nine in the evening. The Israelis are long gone and the border wall was demolished in Jan 2008, when Hamas bulldozers levelled this last visible reminder of Israel's iron grip here, initiating a mass border breach by tens of thousands of Gazans. The short, sharp bursts of machine gunfire that used to punctuate the nights in Rafah have been replaced by the steady drone of motorised winches hauling cargo underground.

Above ground, a tent city has literally risen from the rubble. Inside each makeshift tent dozens of men, mostly young, but also older businessmen who await their deliveries, sip tea and smoke. Like many other developments in Gaza, people here are torn between despair and pride in their assessment of this thriving industry because, like so many other things in Gaza, the smuggling tunnels are at the same time an expression of great defiance and desperate desolation.

"When I look at all these tunnels, I feel we've literally reached the bottom, that the Israelis have destroyed us," said Abu Abdullah, 52, a local businessman. "But I also feel that it is something amazing, that whatever is done to us, we will survive. If they close the surface, we will go under the ground. If they close that, we will find a way. If we have to go via the moon, we will find a way."

Abu Abdullah, who was waiting for a shipment of mirrors, would not give his real name, nor would anyone else interviewed for this article. Even though the tunnels were semi-legitimised by Gaza's Hamas rulers last month, it is still smuggling and everyone is aware that the only reason it goes unabated is because it is tolerated by Hamas on this side and the Egyptian authorities on the other. Egypt does not always tolerate the tunnel industry. Throughout August and September, Egypt closed dozens of tunnels. On Sept 23, an explosion killed five Palestinian diggers, reportedly when the Egyptian army was closing the tunnel. In Rafah, they say gas was pumped into the tunnel, a claim that cannot be verified.

"The Egyptians look the other way for now," said Abu Khaled, 30, the operator through whose tunnel Abu Abdullah's shipment is coming. "They could do more if they wanted." Perhaps. But Egypt is also in a difficult position. There is domestic pressure on Cairo not to seal off the Gaza Strip and Hamas showed in January what it was prepared to do to defy its southern neighbour should it need to. It was only after an agreement with Hamas that the border was sealed again and there is little doubt that the prospect of sending Egyptian soldiers to force besieged Palestinians back across the border is not appealing to the policymakers in Cairo.

Furthermore, turning a blind eye to the tunnel trade allows Egypt to ration official openings of the Rafah border, thus both appeasing Israel and not angering Hamas. It also gives Egypt a means of pressuring Gaza's Islamist rulers, something that may come into play next month as Cairo hosts Palestinian reconciliation talks. Whatever the political machinations, the tunnel industry is the only game in town in Gaza. Anyone with any money is investing, either to operate their own tunnels, own shares in them or bring goods through them.

Abu Khaled said it cost him US$75,000 (Dh275,000) to dig his tunnel. The money, he said, was gathered from various investors, each of whom takes a share of the profit of a shipment. Abu Khaled started in the business several years back, digging other people's tunnels. But as soon as he could gather the money he began to dig his own - a 7m deep, 800m long and 1.5m high tunnel, which was completed about three months ago. It was, he said, the fulfilment of a boyhood dream.

"Tunnel owners have money and respect," he said. "They are the football stars of Rafah." They are also the only employers hiring. Essam Suleiman, 25, came down from Gaza City to find a job. Young and strong he was almost immediately put to work digging a new, vertigo-inducing 25m deep tunnel, right next to Abu Khaled's. "There are different ways to dig tunnels," he said. "If they are shallow, the tunnels need to be secured with wooden beams to prevent collapse.

"Deeper down, the earth is solid and there is no need for wood." Mr Suleiman earns 70 shekels (Dh73) a day digging and will earn US$100 per shipment once the tunnel is operational. Considering the potential risks - about 40 people have been killed in tunnel collapses since the beginning of the year - it does not seem a lot, but in Gaza, where unemployment and poverty are endemic and a total Israeli closure on exports has destroyed local industry, it is as good as it gets.

A report by the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs last month found that the extent of the tunnel network is a direct result of the continued restrictions on access imposed by Israel. The reopening of the crossings into Gaza, the report concluded, remains a "primary need for improving economic and humanitarian conditions". "The tunnels are the only successful projects here," Mr Suleiman said. "My father could not afford for me to finish my education and this is the only work I can get."

On Sept 25, the local Hamas-led municipality semi-legitimised the industry by ordering all tunnel owners to licence their tunnels. Partly, the move was to bring order to the mushrooming activity, and partly to replenish depleted public coffers. Each licence costs tunnel owners 10,000 shekels. The move has been widely welcomed as a way to improve working conditions there, yet the industry is remarkably self-regulated.

Child labour, for example, is banned and wages are fixed, said Abu Khaled, who sits on a council of tunnel owners that adjudicates disputes, usually over money. Once Israel closed the crossings to the Gaza Strip for goods, he said, the tunnel industry blossomed away from arms and other contraband smuggling and there was greater call for labour and greater need for order. As for safety, he said, everyone "understands the dangers". Tunnel owners will pay compensation to families if there are accidents, even though they are not obliged to do so.

Still, it is a "disastrous" way to do business, according to Abu Abdullah, who said he had to start importing goods through tunnels two months ago. "I ran out of glass and wood," said the furniture wholesaler. "There is no other way of getting supplies." The costs are bewildering. For one flat pack of 10 sheets of glass, Abu Abdullah is paying $200 just for tunnel expenses. Added to the cost from his Egyptian supplier and the price rises to $520 per pack. When the Karni Crossing from Israel was open, a similar pack would cost him no more than $100. In total, the current shipment has cost Abu Abdullah $25,000.

"With the extra time it takes and the small quantities I can bring in at a time, it's simply devastating," he said. But the costs are passed on to the customer. An ordinary wood-framed mirror, said Abu Abdullah, that was normally sold at $20 would now fetch $160. All shipments are to order and all orders are prepaid. "You'd be surprised how many people need mirrors, whether for their cars, their bathrooms or their weddings."

As he spoke, eight of Abu Khaled's men had begun to haul through Abu Abdullah's shipment below. Down there, where the air is stale and humidity high, phones immediately bleep. "Welcome to Egypt," read messages from the world above. "We hope you have a pleasant stay." It takes agility to negotiate the iron stepladder that leads down the concrete breezeblock-lined 7m-deep hole, but the young men were down in a second and out of sight. Speed, Abu Khaled said, was the essence. Crouching on their hands and knees, the eight will crawl under the border. On the other side, where the tunnel either comes out in a building or an empty orchard, the Egyptian connection waits with the shipment. To avoid detection, the eight men load the shipment into the tunnel as quickly as possible before closing up again and hiding the tunnel exit.

Then a steel cable is hooked on to one pack at a time and the steel winch begins its whirring. Only one pack can get through the narrow tunnel at a time and each pack is accompanied by two men. It is hard and back-breaking work and no one here would do it by choice. Abu Khaled is proud of what he does, but wants his two sons nowhere near the place. "When they grow up, I want them to be doctors or engineers. Something reputable."

okarmi@thenational.ae