by Nicolas Pelham
For an informal smuggling route, the tunnel complex underneath Gaza’s border with Egypt is remarkably formal. A security cordon of chicken-wire fencing surrounds the Gazan side of the site, barring entrance from Rafah town a few hundred meters away. At each exit a squad in military fatigues monitors the round-the-clock traffic for blacklisted goods. At one checkpoint, Hamas security men frisked a youth in jeans and a baggy T-shirt, discovering a colored paper bag taped to his waist. Inside were 16 packets of tramadol, an opioid painkiller that can be purchased over the counter in Egypt but is sold by the pill in Gaza. The young man’s stash would have fetched 6,000 shekels (over $1,600) on the streets.
Tunnel operators permit such illicit commerce at their peril. Amid the dust clouds churned up by the endless shoveling and hauling stands the nerve center, a bungalow housing the Border and Crossings Authority, adorned incongruously with a bed of anemones. In 2010, the Authority closed at least five tunnels for smuggling tramadol and two tunnels for evading payment of tobacco taxes. “We used to earn thousands smuggling small shipments of handguns, grenades, bullets and dynamite,” says a tunnel operator of five years standing, “but it is no longer worth the risk to be prosecuted by Hamas.”
Known until its upgrade in September as the Tunnels Commission, the Border and Crossings Authority regulates Gaza’s underground trade flows, estimated by Gazan businessmen at over $700 million annually. Hitherto entirely under Interior Ministry control, the Authority is comprised of a 300-strong Interior Ministry armed force, which patrols the Egyptian border on motorbikes and checks the papers of all those entering and leaving the closed zone. Another corps of 200 customs officials, under Economy Minister ‘Ala’ al-Rifati, oversees tariff payments, performing spot checks of cargoes to ensure compliance. Before exiting, truckers queue to register their loads at booths in front of the Authority’s gates. Each truck then sits on an electronic weighing machine inlaid in the sands. Truckers receive a printout of the results, to be declared on leaving the tunnel zone.
The industrial scale of the tunnel business is staggering, dwarfing what passes through the Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing, even now that Israel has relaxed its siege on Gaza in an attempt to calm the furor that erupted after its naval commandoes killed nine aboard a maritime aid convoy in May 2010. Bulldozers shovel gravel into huge dump trucks, and tankers loaded with fuel ply the sands shrouding the site in a dust cloud. Among the quantities arriving daily by tunnel, according to UN figures collected from local merchants, are 800,000 liters (around 5,000 barrels) of fuel, 3,000 tons of gravel, 500 tons of steel rods and 3,000 tons of cement -- about as much as Israel shifts in a week. On one visit in October, I counted a truck pulling out of the complex every three minutes.
Necessity, the Mother of Invention
By the contemporary standards of Gaza’s traders, the times are remarkably peaceful and bustling. In the late winter of 2008, Israel unleashed a war on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, whose bombardment pummeled many tunnels. In 2010, the regime of Husni Mubarak in Egypt announced it had played its part in the siege by plugging 600 tunnels with a variety of methods, from explosives to flooding with sewage, and most menacingly by sinking a steel barrier deep underground. Extortion and confiscation of goods was systemic. “If you didn’t pay their extortion, they imprisoned you,” recalled a tunnel owner on the Egyptian side of the border, who claimed interrogators had strung him by his hands during his ten-day detention, to extract a 250,000 pound ($45,000) bribe as the price for escaping a five-year prison term.