By Nadia W. Awad
After Hamas defeated Fatah in the ‘Battle for Gaza’ in June 2007, the Hamas-led government became solely responsible for the Gaza Strip. Israel, the US and the rest of the international community refused to deal with them and embarked on a form of collective punishment, imposing an economic and political blockade on the Strip. These blockades have plummeted the people of Gaza into a humanitarian disaster of gigantic proportions.
When people such as Lauren Booth (sister-in-law of former British PM Tony Blair) call Gaza the world’s largest concentration camp, or the world’s largest open-air prison, they are not exaggerating. More than 1.4 million Palestinians are surrounded by Israeli soldiers on one side, Egyptian soldiers on another, with the sea visibly taunting them with its apparent openness. Of course, it is not open. Israel’s navy blockades Gaza from that side as well. Goods are not allowed across Gaza’s borders in either direction. Even essential items such as medical equipment are prohibited, while only some humanitarian assistance is allowed in. Israel tends to summarily switch off water and power to thousands, as well as prevent fuel deliveries from entering Gaza. Hence, Gazans truly live at the mercy of Israel. Yet despite these tribulations, which would normally destroy one’s will to live, Gazans have found a way of venting the economic blockade imposed on them. Allow me to introduce you to Gaza’s only growth industry: the tunnel trade.
Gaza’s infamous tunnels are rumored to exist in the hundreds, up to 500 by some reports, passing under Israel’s buffer zone with Egypt. Before Israel unilaterally withdrew to Gaza’s borders, the Israeli army cleared a 300-meter wide buffer zone along the border with Egypt by demolishing more than 2,500 Palestinian houses, mostly in Rafah, a densely populated refugee camp. This 10-mile long border with Egypt, also known as ‘Tunnel Town’, is home to these hand-dug tunnels, which supply everything from medical supplies to food to weapons. They also supply luxury goods such as clothing, laptops, and cigarettes. There is no doubt, these tunnels have saved lives. As a result, the Hamas-led government cannot prohibit or prevent them from being dug. Such an unpopular decision would probably spell political suicide for them, and their support is already weakening as the siege on Gaza continues. But while these tunnels may save lives, they also cost lives.
The tunnels are extremely dangerous at the best of times, with their walls propped up only by makeshift wooden planks. Sometimes, though not always, they can be equipped with ventilation pumps to allow the diggers to breathe something other than dust and sand. The diggers, ranging from young children to men in their 50s and 60s, are all desperate for work to feed their families. Most of them have no choice in the matter if they want to work at all. In 2007, unemployment in Gaza reached a staggeringly high 45% of the work force.
Since the beginning of 2008, 45 Palestinians have died in these tunnels. Some died while digging them; others died after Egyptian or Israeli efforts to destroy them. Until a ceasefire was reached between Israel and Hamas, Israel used to routinely bomb ‘Tunnel Town’ from the air. Egyptian authorities, on the other hand, mostly turned a blind eye towards the tunnels. However, due to increasing Israeli and American pressure, Egypt has recently adopted a new stance towards the tunnels, opting to destroy them upon discovery, especially as the tunnels are also used to smuggle weapons into the Strip. Explosives are the most successful method of destroying tunnels irrevocably, but according to reports and interviews, Egypt has also been known to flush water, sewage, and poison gas down the tunnels. The saddest part of all this is that neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians check to make sure that the tunnels are empty before they begin their operations.
Unfortunately, as history has shown over and over, there are always those individuals who profit from other people’s suffering and misfortune. While it is clear that these tunnels are like a breath of fresh air for Gazans, this air comes at a heavy monetary price. According to interviews with tunnel workers, gangs including both Gazan and Egyptian individuals are earning tens of thousands of dollars a week, charging premiums of up to 150% on their cargos. As this trade becomes more profitable, smuggled goods become even more expensive, leaving fewer people able to afford even the most essential of goods. However, as long as the economic blockade is maintained, this tunnel trade will continue to flourish. After all, beggars cannot be choosers.
What is more important than this story of tunnel digging, smuggled goods, and profits is the reason these tunnels came about in the first place. I have already mentioned that unemployment is at 45%. This is an official World Bank estimate. Unofficial reports suggest that unemployment is much higher, nearer to 80%. More than 80% of Gazans live under the poverty line, with 35% of them living in what is considered extreme poverty. The blockade on Gaza has also led to the suspension of 95% of Gaza’s industrial operations. With no job prospects, no investment, and no trading, Gaza will drown in its own poverty. The only thing stopping it from going under completely is the intermittent arrival of humanitarian assistance and Hamas government wages. Unless the blockade is ended, this humanitarian crisis will worsen, tunnel trading will grow, and more and more people will turn to desperate measures to survive. While Israel and the world are hoping that this economic siege will force Gazans to overthrow Hamas, they must know that Palestinians will not submit to this type of blackmail. If Hamas is ever removed from power, it will be because the Palestinians democratically made that choice.
As long as Gazans are subjected to this inhumane siege placed upon them by an international community which claims it does not condone collective punishment, the tunnel building will continue despite the dangers. As Mahmoud Darwish said on behalf of all Palestinians, "I hate nobody. And I don’t steal. But if I’m made to starve, I’ll eat the flesh of my oppressor. Beware of my hunger and anger!"
(Originally published in MIFTAH – www.miftah.org – and is republished by PalestineChronicle.com with permission.)