Gaza’s Tunnel Economy
by Stephen Lendman
They’re a vital lifeline. They’re a potential death trap. They’re a bonanza for profiteers. They symbolize Palestinians’ will to survive. It shows their determination to do so against all odds.
Decades of Israeli viciousness haven’t deterred them. They’re not about to quit now.
Besieged Gazans struggle to survive. Tunnel supplied goods are essential. After Egypt’s military ousted Mohamed Morsi, conditions went from bad to worse.
His supporters threatened reprisals. Gazans have no involvement. Hamas was wrongfully blamed for clashes between unidentified militants and Egyptian forces.
According to an earlier IDF statement:
“The Egyptian military activity in the Sinai is coordinated with Israeli security elements and authorized at the most senior levels in Israel, in order to contend with security threats in the Sinai that pose a threat to both Israel and Egypt.”
At issue is inflicting more punishment on besieged Gazans. Rafah crossing is closed much of the time. Palestinians needing urgent medical care unavailable in Gaza can’t get it.
Anti-Gazan sentiment peaked after Morsi’s election. Egypt’s military, opposition political elements and supportive media exploited his perceived alliance with Hamas.
They held him responsible for Sinai violence. They wrongfully blamed Palestinians. They called them Muslim Brotherhood militants.
Israel, its media, and PA officials hyped the Big Lie. They did it for self-serving reasons. Egypt cracked down hard on Gaza. Goods permitted to enter dropped sharply.
Restricted amounts of food, fuel, medical supplies, and other essentials entered through Rafah crossing. Gaza’s tunnel economy slowed dramatically.
Operators fearer detection. For months, Egypt destroyed hundreds of tunnels. Major General Ahmed Ibrahim heads Egypt’s Border Guards Force.
Since January 2011, he estimates 1,055 tunnels destroyed. Armed forces and military intelligence work cooperatively. They monitor over 13 kilometers around Rafah’s border with Egypt.
They use equipment to detect tunnel activity. When found, bulldozers move in destructively. In December 2012, National Geographic
headlined “The Tunnels of Gaza,” saying:
As long as they worked in tunnels, Samir and his brother Yussef suspected death might follow. “When Yussef did die,” he succumbed much as they imagined.
It was “under a crushing hail of earth.” Both brothers were on a night shift. They were doing maintenance.
Samer was near the tunnel’s entrance. Yussef and two co-workers were well inside.
“They were trying to wedge a piece of plywood into the wall to shore it up when it began collapsing.”
It did so a second time. Yussef disappeared. Samir heard crashing sounds. He entered the tunnel crawling.
He and others began digging. The tunnel began collapsing again. “We didn’t know what to do,” said Samir. “We felt helpless.”
He spoke about beginning tunnel work years earlier. “I didn’t want to, but I had no choice,” he said.
“You can die at any moment. ” Some tunnels are properly built, maintained and ventilated. Others aren’t.
Tunnel collapses, explosions, air strikes, Egyptian bulldozings, and fires happen often. Gazans call it “a way to paradise or death.”
Most tunnel workers have injuries or health problems. Yussef developed chronic respiratory illness.
Samir said tunnel work feels “like a bad omen present all the time. We always expect something bad to happen.” Often it does.
Gazan heroes include tunnel workers. Those who perish are honored. Yussef’s poster read:
“The sons of the mukhtar share condolences with the family in the martyrdom of the hero Yussef.”
Tunnels sustain life. Most are nearly a third of a mile long. They’re around six stories below ground. They cost $50,000 or more to build.
Months of intense labor are required to do so. Israel wants them destroyed. It bombs them. It kills innocent civilians struggling to survive.
It prioritizes Palestinian suffering. It does so ruthlessly. It’s lawless siege bears full responsibility. Egypt’s complicity shares it.
Gaza’s underground economy isn’t new. It began in 1982. Following the 1979 Egyptian/Israeli peace treaty, Rafah was split.
Part was in Gaza, the rest in Egypt. Israel began demolishing tunnels. Early ones were built beneath homes.
New tunnels followed. Operations continued. Israel established a buffer zone along Rafah border areas.
From 2000 – 2004, around 1,700 homes were destroyed. After Hamas won January 2006 elections, embargo conditions began.
In mid-2007, siege was imposed. Egypt cooperated. It still does. Gaza’s tunnel economy substitutes. It’s a vital subsistence lifeline.
Thousands of Palestinians work building them. Thousands more provide engineering, transportation and other services.
Tunnels provide two-thirds of Gaza’s consumer goods. According to one Palestinian engineer:
“We did not choose to use the tunnels. But it was too hard for us to stand still during the siege and expect war and poverty.”
Gaza reflects the heart of Palestinian resistance. Risking death below ground reflects it.
Tunnels supply most materials used for public works projects. Overall operations supply essentials vital to survive.
They include food, livestock, flour, milk, cheese, cooking oil, small generators, kerosene heaters, and virtually everything else most people take for granted.
Rafah crossing is the only above ground point of entry or egress. It’s ill-equipped. It’s often closed.
It’s way inadequate to service 1.7 million Gazans. It can’t provide all their needs. Tunnel economy operations supply most of them. It’s a lifeline too vital to lose.
Construction is hazardous. Five to 12 men work 12 hour shifts six days a week. Operations continue round the clock.
Workers earn about $50 a shift. They do so six stories below ground. Conditions are chaotic. They’re hazardous.
Dim lightbulbs flicker. Radio traffic blares. Dust-covered workers haul sacks out on sleds.
Tunnel entrances are large enough to accommodate several stooping men. They narrow considerably inside.
Death threaten workers from every direction. Egyptians at times pump in raw sewage or poison gas. Fires, cave-ins, explosions, air attacks, and other hazards endanger lives.
Besieged Gazans persist as best they can. Survival depends on goods tunnels provide. Destroying them creates enormous hardships.
On September 11, 2013, Bloomberg
headlined “Gaza Goat Feed Prices Jump as Sealed Tunnels Hit Economy.”
Muhamed Musa once saved over $2,000 monthly. He did so buying tunnel supplied goat feed.
He did it “until an Egyptian offensive shut the crawlways and forced him to import from Israel at a higher cost.”
“Sales at his farm-supply shop have dropped by half. If the crisis in Egypt continues and the tunnels stay closed,” we’re in real trouble,” he said.
Before Morsi’s July 3 ouster, Hamas economy minister Ala al-Rafati said about 600 tunnels operated.
“Due to the ongoing Egyptian security campaign, 95 percent of (them) are inoperative,” he explained.
“This has caused severe losses to the Gaza Strip economy,” he added. He estimates around $460 million.
Perhaps it’s much more than that. In late October, deputy economy minister Hatem Oweida estimated about $230 million lost monthly.
Tunnel closures “caused heavy losses to industry, commerce, agriculture and construction sectors” he said. Public revenues declined proportionately. Employment was severely impacted. It’s well over 40%.
According to economist Hamad Jad:
“The political upheaval in Egypt has battered the Gaza Strip economy and crippled manufacturing and agriculture.”
Political scientist Mukhemer Abu Sada said Hamas is “under extreme political pressure.”
“Their allies are being weakened, and they are seeing themselves increasingly isolated.”
Egypt’s cracking down harder than ever. Ordinary Palestinians suffer most. Tunnel operations are a shadow of earlier times.
Operator Abu Emad expressed concern, saying:
“I miss the good old days when we were working round the clock. I don’t believe Egypt’s going to let us operate again.”
Gazans yearn to be free. They don’t intend letting Israeli ruthlessness deter them.
His new book is titled “Banker Occupation: Waging Financial War on Humanity.”
Listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network.
It airs Fridays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.