Gaza’s tunnel economy

August 19, 2009

Eric Ruder looks at the lengths to which desperate Gazans--starved and deprived by Israel's punishing blockade--are going in order to keep food and other necessities coming in.

ISRAEL LAUNCHED a pre-dawn wave of air strikes against a tunnel on August 10 that it said was being used by Palestinian militants to smuggle explosives into Gaza. Israel claimed that its offensive was a reaction to the firing of rockets at the Eretz border crossing that connects Gaza and Israel.

The attack produced a ripple of headlines in newspapers around the world, but the event was notable precisely because though such strikes were once routine, they have been rare in the months since Israel carried out its December/January massacre that claimed the lives of some 1,400 Palestinians and severely damaged Gaza's already fragile infrastructure.

However, the real story, generally ignored by mainstream reports that failed to penetrate beyond Israel's own assertions about its motives, is the ongoing siege of Gaza, the tunnel economy that the people of Gaza now must depend on, and the daily and deadly toll of the humanitarian crisis unleashed by Israel's siege.

In the two years since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip, Israel has imposed a suffocating blockade of a dizzying array of goods essential to subsistence. In the month of January 2007, more than 14,000 truckloads of goods entered Gaza, but in June 2007, that number fell to about 5,000. Since then, the monthly number of truckloads entering Gaza has hovered just above 2,000, which is less than a quarter of what Gaza needs to function normally.

A Palestinian worker is lowered into a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt.
A Palestinian worker is lowered into a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt. (BTselem)

"I lived through the 1967 war, but I've never seen days like this before," said Souad Abrado, whose home was destroyed by Israeli bulldozers this past winter. She and her husband now sleep on foam mattresses under a tarp next to the rubble that was once their home because they are unable to find an apartment.

The choking shortage of food, fuel, construction and medical supplies has spawned a network of hundreds of tunnels connecting the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza with the Egyptian border town of Rafah.

Even before Israel's December/January offensive, some 90 percent of goods entering Gaza were smuggled through the tunnels, which are controlled by businessmen who pay the Hamas government a one-time digging fee of about $2,500 for each tunnel they build.

The cost of constructing and maintaining Gaza's economy of tunnels is substantial, both in terms of money and lives. The tunnels vary dramatically in size, cost between $25,000 and $100,000 to build, and take several weeks to complete the digging and rudimentary buttressing to keep the tunnel from collapsing on itself.

Some are no more than a yard across and barely tall enough for a grown man to crawl through. Others are wide and tall enough to walk through upright and to even accommodate the passage of livestock such as cows and goats or large automobile parts.

Most have an electric winch or some other means to raise and lower goods down the tunnel shaft, which varies in depth from 50 to 80 feet. Some even have a winch at either end of the tunnel, which may run 1,500 to 2,500 feet underground, to pull the goods from Egypt into Gaza and the transport containers back from Gaza into Egypt.

The tunnels provide a lifeline connecting Gaza to the outside world, but they are also deadly and dangerous for the more than 5,000 Palestinians who toil underground or operate the machinery that keep the goods flowing.

In one week spanning late July and early August, 12 Palestinians died in tunnel accidents. In one particularly gruesome episode, seven tunnel workers died when a spark ignited gasoline that had leaked from a pipe used to move the fuel through the tunnel. It took days for five of the charred bodies to be excavated from the rubble, and two other men who suffered moderate burns had to be hospitalized.

In all, more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in tunnel accidents since the June 2007 tightening of the siege. But in a land characterized by the collapse of industry, soaring unemployment and desperate poverty, thousands of Palestinians choose the prospect of steady employment over the daily risk of being crushed, burned or bombed on the job.

THE UNPREDICTABILITY of life and death in the tunnels is more than matched by the arbitrariness of Israel's policy that bars some goods on some days and other goods on other days. The seemingly random decisions by Israeli officials about what gets through and when has confounded aid agencies, businesses and transport companies.

"We've asked them, 'Please, supply us with lists, so we know upfront,'" says William Corcoran, president of American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). ANERA had been allowed to deliver medical supplies and food aid with few obstacles for most of the last eight years it has operated in Gaza--until last November. "[Now, it's] a very cumbersome system, more complicated than it's ever been before," explained Corcoran.

ANERA and several other aid groups, including Save the Children, World Vision, and Mercy Corps, have repeatedly requested that Israeli officials clarify their policy but to little effect.

In March, during the closing days of the administration of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the Israeli cabinet announced that it would allow the "unfettered" transport of food into Gaza.

But according to Sari Bashi, the executive director of Gisha, the Legal Center for the Freedom of Movement, based in Tel Aviv, this official policy is intentionally frustrated by a maze of bureaucratic obstacles that reimpose the fetters that Israel supposedly lifted.

"Even if they say all food is allowed, Israel has created an extremely onerous bureaucratic process that has made it nearly impossible to get many basic foodstuffs into Gaza," said Bashi.

According to a May 13 report in the Christian Science Monitor:

The process includes complicated manifests of food being sent in by various aid organizations, which can be rejected at any point in the process and not always for clear reasons. Trucks are checked, unloaded, and reloaded several times over the course of days, raising shipping costs.

In recent months, all of the following items have been rejected at one point, and later allowed in only after it became an embarrassing international issue: pasta; lentils; strawberry jam; chocolate; and halvah, a Middle Eastern sweet made of sesame.

A shipment of "reinforced nutritional bars" were turned back because low-level military officials misunderstood the manifest and thought they were steel bars, which--like other building materials--are not allowed into Gaza.

Even tin cans are not allowed because they could be melted down for other purposes, making it difficult for farmers in Gaza to turn vegetables into canned food that will last longer.

As a consequence, trucks full of food and aid sit, sometimes for weeks, while their cargo spoils. In June, Egyptian authorities burned a shipment of peanuts, agricultural pesticides and medicines that had expired before Israel allowed the goods into Gaza.

Such policies have left some 80 percent of Gaza's 1.5 million residents dependent on aid agencies for food and medicine.

"I used to buy two cartons of eggs a week, but after the war the price of one carton jumped and I stopped buying it," said Amal Sharif, a resident of the Shati refugee camp and a mother of 10. "There are many things that we stopped buying completely: meat, fish, chicken. Even the price of fruit is higher."

Sharif has also resorted to making just two meals a day instead of three: "We eat breakfast at 11 a.m. and lunch at 5 or 6 p.m., so no one needs to eat dinner after that."

THE CENTRALITY of the tunnels to Gaza's near-dead economy undermines Israel's chief justification for maintaining its right to use air strikes along the Rafah border at will. Israel asserts that the tunnels are used for weapons smuggling, without acknowledging that without the tunnels, Gaza would face mass starvation.

In truth, Israel recognizes that the tunnels must remain open--precisely to keep Israeli officials from having to face international criticisms that it was literally starving the people of Gaza to death. Thus Israel--along with Egypt's collaboration--engages in a complicated dance around the tunnels, turning a blind eye at times while bombing the tunnels at other times, in order to carry out the slow but steady (rather than fast and obvious) strangulation of Palestinian life in Gaza.

And while Israel uses the world's most sophisticated jet fighters and ordnance to deny food and aid to the people of Gaza and arms to Hamas, the U.S. supplies Israel with jet fighters and explosives--all while the international community looks on.

In this context, it is understandable why the Hamas government does use some tunnels to import arms. How else can it defend itself from Israel, which--thanks to help from U.S. taxpayers--possesses one of the world's 10 most powerful militaries? Certainly Hamas would end its weapons smuggling--in exchange for an agreement from the U.S. to end its massive military supplies to Israel.

Despite all the rhetoric about how Israel must bravely confront "Palestinian terrorists," Israel has killed far more civilians through its military offensives and siege than Palestinian rocket attacks or bombings.

The truth is that the civilian toll has been five to 10 times higher on the Palestinian side for every year since 2000. And that only counts the number of Palestinian civilians directly killed in Israeli military strikes. Since June 2007 alone, at least 344 Palestinians who required life-saving medical treatment that Gaza's compromised health care system couldn't provide them have died because of the Israeli siege.

Palestinians seeking health care outside Gaza are regularly denied travel permits by Israel--or are granted permits but then still denied passage. It's impossible to know how many lives were unnecessarily shortened by Israel's callous disregard for such patients.

ISRAEL ALSO bars the importation of construction materials, such as cement and steel, under the Orwellian policy of restricting the flow of so-called "dual-use equipment"--that is, goods essential to the functioning of Gaza's civilian infrastructure that may also have a military application.

Cement and steel, for example, could be used to build bunkers and other structures to defend military targets and are not allowed to be imported, even though they are desperately needed to rebuild more than 14,000 homes, 68 government buildings, and 31 offices of nongovernmental organizations damaged or destroyed by Israel earlier this year, according to the UN Development Program.

It should be mentioned that the U.S. used this same logic in imposing deadly sanctions against Iraq for the 12 years between its 1991 and 2003 invasions. These sanctions killed 1 million Iraqis, half of them children under 5, according to the United Nations.

In addition to the doublespeak of barring dual-use supplies, Israel also uses the capricious designation of "luxury items" to bar all manner of goods on any given day. The reason? According to Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj. Guy Inbar, "gourmet items" are turned away because they won't be consumed by average Palestinians, but "by the rich and corrupt leaders of Hamas."

But rhetorical concern for the plight of Gaza's poverty-stricken residents does not conceal the fact that Israel, not Hamas, is responsible for the crushing siege that has plunged so many Palestinians into desperate poverty--and created the shortages of everyday items that make for lucrative opportunities for wealthy Palestinians who own and operate the tunnels. A bag of smuggled cement, for example, costs 10 times what a bag of cement used to.

That explains why the huge price tag associated with building a tunnel is embarked upon--by employing cheap Palestinian labor to take advantage of the artificial shortages created by Israel's blockade, the initial investment can be made back in a hurry.

BY MEANS of both military and economic attacks, Israel has sought to devastate Gaza's entire economy and civilian infrastructure in order to force either total surrender on the Palestinian people or the slow but relentless strangulation of all social life.

But the people of Gaza still refuse to capitulate. Some have begun rebuilding their houses with bricks made of mud and clay, building materials that were abandoned 50 years ago in favor of steel, brick and concrete.

Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, drawing on the example of the Black South African struggle against apartheid, have launched a boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

And activists from around the world have responded--building divestment campaigns as well as convoys of aid and people designed to defy the Israeli siege (as well as challenge Egypt's shameful collaboration in the project).

But the pressure in Gaza is mounting every day. In January 2008, two-thirds of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt was toppled by Palestinian resistance fighters. In what can only be described as the world's largest prison break, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians--perhaps as many as 800,000--flooded into northern Egypt to stock up on supplies.

For days the border remained open, and Egyptian authorities only succeeded in sealing it after deploying riot police armed with electric batons, water cannons and live ammunition, along with hastily constructed barbed wire and chain-link fences to hold back the sea of people.

Could there be a replay of these events in the future? Some observers believe that discussions about how to pursue such a move are already beginning in Gaza. In addition to the internal pressures driving Palestinian leaders toward this strategy, there are also some signs that the world beyond Gaza may look on such a development sympathetically.

In his June 4 speech in Cairo, Barack Obama acknowledged that Gaza was in the throes of a "humanitarian crisis," and just a month later the G8--the group of eight of the world's most-powerful countries--issued a statement calling on Israel to allow for a "sustained reopening" of Gaza's border crossings in order to facilitate the regular flow of people, food and aid.

But talk is cheap--and without more and sustained pressure from activists, students and workers around the world, Israel, the U.S. and Egypt will continue their criminal policy of collective punishment against the people of Gaza.

Don't let them get away with it.

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