Despite dangers, Rafah’s smuggling tunnels resume work

January 26th, 2009 - 11:00 am ICT by IANS  

Rafah (Gaza Strip), Jan 26 (DPA) Two men are loading up the back of a truck with generators, the front of the vehicle peering out of light green tenting covering a hole about one metre wide, which drops deep into the ground, just a few hundred metres from the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt.”We only bring in food, generators for when the power goes out, things like this, never weapons or illegal stuff,” said Abu Salim, a man in his mid 20s who works in one of the Gaza Strip’s tunnels running under the border in the southern towns and refugee camps of Rafah.

The products head to the main market in Rafah for sale. Jackets, candy, hardware, shower heads, washing machines, motorbikes, shoes and clothes, along with a host of other items, were being hawked by sellers in the large Saturday market.

“The small items, we just bring in. It’s easy. The larger goods, like the motorbikes, we take apart on the Egyptian side, bring them through piece by piece and reassemble them here,” said Abu Salim.

Another smuggler, who called himself Ahmed, was at work with colleagues pumping diesel fuel through a pipeline, which runs about 400 metres long, he said, from Egypt into Rafah.

“Each day, I can fill up about two trucks, each having about 16,000 litres of diesel,” Ahmed said. His fuel costs less than half the price of the diesel imported from Israel.

Many tunnels were damaged or destroyed during Israel’s three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip, during which the air force targeted the Rafah border area hundreds of times.

Within days of the ceasefire, some of the tunnels were back to work. At others, people were working 24 hours a day, in two shifts, to fix the routes and reopen for business.

“Look, they closed the borders and don’t let goods come in. Many times, not even food and gas. To get parts for your car is impossible. People need the tunnels to live,” said Farid, who was repairing a tunnel damaged during the airstrikes.

His cohort was busy negotiating the price of goats with a potential client. Calves were also a popular import.

Israel closed the Gaza Strip’s border to export and limited imports to humanitarian goods after Hamas overtook the enclave in 2007. Since then, tunnels have slowly been the main way to circumvent the blockade, which at times has left people without essentials like cooking gas and some foodstuffs.

“We need the tunnels, we cannot get by without them. But there are downsides to them as well,” said one Rafah resident, requesting anonymity. Children sometimes work on the tunnels. In others, the goods coming through include drugs and other contraband.

Amongst the dozens of destroyed houses behind the primary tunnel area, a fight broke out between residents.

Amidst all the destruction of homes and property which left people broken, traumatized and without an idea of what they would do in the future, a neighbour’s tunnel had survived and he was back in business, serving more than food.

“We don’t need these serious tunnels now,” said a man who was convinced that at any moment Israeli fighter jets would return, asking his neighbour to end the business.

Food tunnels were one thing, but looking at his children, suddenly without a roof due to the aerial bombardment which trashed his home and neighbourhood, he wanted peace of mind - the knowledge that trade in the more illicit goods Israel was trying to curtail with massive force had stopped.

The tunnels have also impacted what is left of Gaza’s dying economy and financial sector.

“With the tunnels, money leaves, but never comes back,” explained Amr Hamed, from the Palestinian Traders Association, noting the damage to the economic cycle. People have also come to prefer cheaper Egyptian products to local work.

The escaping cash has also contributed to the strip’s liquidity crisis, as bills have become a rarer commodity, especially when Israel blocks imports of fresh supplies.

According to residents of Rafah, the tunnels’ history goes back over 25 years, when they began to replace smuggling routes used to bring in illegal items.

Once the blockade hit, a near fatal blow to the Gaza Strip’s deteriorating economy, the tunnel business expanded, with more and more being dug to meet the demands of the population.

The tunnel business will not end, smugglers insist, until Israel reopens the borders and regular imports resume, also the only reasonable way for people to get in and out of the enclave.

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