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Report: Egypt - Palestinian territories

Gazans dig to end Hamas, Egyptian control of tunnels

A Palestinian worker repairs a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, 10 February, 2013
A Palestinian worker repairs a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, 10 February, 2013 Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Since Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza in 2006 after Hamas came to power, the Strip has found new ways to import many vital goods. Supplies of many items are restricted, such as building materials, which Israel argues could be used to make weapons. Gazans say that the blockade restricts supplies of food and medication, sometimes forcing them to buy goods at higher cost from Israel. RFI visited Gaza’s underground tunnel system which connects the Strip to Egypt.

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Gaza’s border with Egypt looks peaceful above ground. There is nothing to suggest the network of tunnels below the surface, apart from some worn-looking tents and a Hamas security guard sitting on a chair in the middle of the street.

One manager of ten tunnels, who wished to remain anonymous for his own security, said he makes between 775 - 77,500 euros per month:

“Everything comes through the tunnels - gas, food, milks, drugs - everything!”

Audio report - Gaza tunnels

Some tunnels are used to smuggle goods, with two dedicated just to smuggling cars, while others are designed for people, and officially require a permit from Gaza’s ruling Hamas government.

Hamas keep an iron grip on the tunnel system, even those that are not officially owned and run by them, levying a tax on all goods that pass through the network.

But taxes aren’t the only problem for users of Gaza’s tunnels. Egypt recently began flooding some of the tunnels with sewage - an act that caused several deaths.

“Because we fear more flooding from the Egyptian side, we’ve closed many of the tunnel entrances on the Egyptian side and begun digging tunnels between peoples homes on both sides. This avoids the Egyptians knowing about the tunnel and the Hamas government taxing the goods that pass through.”

Officially, the Egyptian government is increasingly concerned about security in the Sinai peninsula and is seeking to restrict use of the tunnels in order to put pressure on Israel to ease the blockade.

Yet the tunnel workers argue that the real reason is that Egypt seeks an overground free trade agreement with Gaza which would allow the Egypt government to collect taxes on goods at a moment when it is struggling with its own economic difficulties.

This shift in tunnel politics is having a big affect on former workers, most of whom hail from Gaza’s southern town of Rafah. One, a 22-year-old who had worked in the tunnels for two years but wishes to remain anonymous, spoke to RFI:

Dossier: Gaza 2009

“It’s bad - from the Egyptian side and from the government here, and from the land too - it’s sandy so it’s really unstable, which means tunnels can collapse at any time.”

He says he has been forced to work on a farm close to the tunnels as this is his only option but that he makes at most 20 sheckels per day, roughly four euros, compared to around 40 euros that he made previously.

His friend, aged 21 and who also wished to remain anonymous, is also now working on the farm having previously worked in the tunnels:

“So many people from Rafah and Khan Younis used to work in these tunnels. But with what’s happening now, especially from the Egyptian side, people are afraid to work there - I’d say maybe 12,000 of us stopped. But these places have been filled by other people coming from Khan Younis and Gaza City to work here, people who don’t know the situation and how dangerous it is.”

Without an end to the Israeli blockade, it seems unlikely that Gaza’s tunnels will close any time soon. Yet as the ground shifts on the tunnels, both politically and physically, the dangers of working there grow incrementally for Gaza’s residents.

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