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Gaza Feature: You Can’t Develop An Economy Based On Tunnels

Gaza: You Can’t Develop An Economy Based On Tunnels

A view inside the Tunnels which supply Gaza city with Scoop's

Story and Images by Julie Webb Pullman (In Gaza City - Gaza)

Dr Ahmed Yousef said in my last interview, “You can’t develop an economy based on tunnels.” On Thursday I went to Rafah to see the tunnels first-hand, and talk with those who work in them. I was asked not to take photographs of the tunnels themselves, because every time pictures of them are published, they are bombed by the Israelis. The latest attack was only a week or so ago. So external pictures only…

The tunnels are all located in the Gaza-Egypt border town of Rafah, and were dug to enable essential items prohibited by Israel to enter the Gaza Strip. They are to found under tents of all sizes amidst a desolate landscape that was once a residential neighbourhood - until Israel bombed it into oblivion, leaving thousands homeless while preventing the materials necessary to rehouse them from entering.

Click for big version

Freshly-loaded truck about to leave the tent

The first tunnel I visited is used to transport food, and stones for making cement for the re/construction of houses. It is 25 metres below the surface, operates 24 hours a day, and is accessed by an elevator that goes down what looks to all intents and purposes like a well about 1.5 metres in diameter. Picture 1 shows a recently loaded truck of groceries from this tunnel about to leave the tent

After the truck left, several loads of earth were brought up, and removed – there is a constant maintenance program in progress, a necessity because this particular tunnel is regularly bombed, and equally-regularly rebuilt.

The second tunnel I visited is used to transport fuel – 1.5 million litres of gasoline a day. It is but one of many fuel tunnels providing more than 90% of Gaza’s consumption, but there are still daily power cuts because the tunnels cannot provide enough for Gaza’s requirements, and what little fuel they can obtain from Israel is three times more expensive than that they bring through the tunnels. The dangers of working in the fuel tunnels can be left to your imagination.

My informant told me that the Gaza Government collects a 1% tax on the fuel, which is used to fund infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip, but no tax is charged on the other goods.

Without the tunnels, then, three of the most fundamental requirements of life would be almost totally denied to the people of Gaza – food, shelter, and fuel. So, who provides this essential service?

There are four areas of tunnel operation – the owners, the builders, the Tunnel Management Committee, and the workers. The owners are fundamentally investors who pay for the construction, infrastructure, maintenance, and any taxes – and reap any profits. The builders are necessarily specialists, as the tunnels are feats of engineering which interweave above, below and around each other, thus maintaining their structural integrity is essential to ensure their utility as well as their safety under frequent bombardment. The Tunnel Management Committee was set up at the initiative of Hamas authorities, whose recognition that the tunnels were essential to Gaza’s survival was accompanied by the recognition that some form of oversight was necessary, to ensure not only structural integrity and worker safety, but also some sort of control over what is brought through them. The workers are just that – workers, toiling long hours in extremely dangerous, dusty, and hot conditions.

Ten workers were on duty in the goods tunnel I visited, and one of the workers told me they work a twelve hour shift, for which they receive 110 nis (New Israeli Shekels), or about USD $30.00. They do the perilous work because is it necessary – without it the people of Gaza would have no supplies, and their own families would have no food. In one word, they do it to SURVIVE.

Nevertheless, 216 people have been killed in the last five years, he said. Where the Tunnel Management Committee might be able to control who builds new tunnels where, what comes through them, and pay a form of workers’ compensation, they cannot control the Israeli attacks that kill and maim so many, or prevent the inevitable accidents such as collapses and electrocutions, classic hazards of even the best-planned tunnel-work under these conditions.
Their workers’ compensation scheme sees the family of a married man who is killed receive $10,000 and $2,000 for funeral costs, while a single man’s family receives $9000 plus funeral costs. Injuries are compensated in much the same way as the NZ Accident Compensation scheme, with lump sum payments for various injuries.

Certain items are prohibited from coming through the tunnels, and breaches are severely punished. Drugs, alcohol, and weapons are all strictly prohibited, and since discovering that a stolen vehicle racket had sprung up to supply the Gaza market, motorcycles and cars are also banned. Penalties include $10,000 fines, confiscation of the prohibited items, loss of the permit, and the closing down of the tunnel.

While previously just about anyone who wanted to build a tunnel could get permission, there are few applicants these days – it is no longer economic. Israeli goods are cheaper, so there is no market for the more-expensive tunnel goods amongst the impoverished Gazan population.

It is only the bare essentials that come through now - Israeli-restricted items like food, construction materials and fuel – and until the blockade of Gaza is lifted, or the bombings cease, the death rate can only continue to climb.



Julie Webb-Pullman (click to view previous articles) is a New Zealand based freelance writer who has reported for Scoop since 2003. She recently managed to get into Gaza during a brief period when the Rafah Gate was open.

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