Omar Karmi
The National
April 16, 2010 - 12:00am

The last time Ibrahim Qishta did any business through the vast tunnel network under the Egypt-Gaza border it involved three sheep. Unusually, however, for the underground trade that constitutes Gaza’s lifeline to the outside world, the 60-year-old farmer was exporting.

“It’s not a huge trade,” Mr Qishta said on Monday. “The Egyptians are not looking to import livestock for meat, but in order to breed them.”

Yet in an economy where only two products – flowers and strawberries – have been legally allowed out in over two years, the export of livestock, however small, is nevertheless remarkable.

Mr Qishta said he made US$400 (Dh1,469) a head for the three sheep he sold last month. A pregnant sheep would have earned him $600 while a cow could fetch anywhere between $1,000 and $4,000, depending on age and size.

Over the years, Mr Qishta said, he had sold a total of 10 cows and 50 sheep to Egyptian farmers. By contrast, he estimated that in the same time he had bought 2,000 animals. “We buy for the meat. They have the quantity, we have the quality,” he said.

Indeed, Gaza’s sheep and cows are generally considered superior to the local stock in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world. The Assaf breed in Gaza is the result of crossbreeding the native Awassi and East Friesian Milk sheep and is considered a top quality dairy sheep and mutton producer.

As such, Gazan livestock is an attractive option for Egyptian farmers. But the stock is limited. International agriculture experts are warning of a shortage in the livestock population in Gaza since the war here last year, which resulted in the loss of about 5,000 sheep and 800 cows, according to the UN.

The Israeli economic siege, furthermore, which prevents all but basic humanitarian goods, and now a trickle of construction materials, from entering the impoverished Gaza Strip, has meant that Palestinian farmers have been unable to restock.

And while many, like Mr Qishta, have their own breeding programmes, the Israeli-imposed buffer zone – which is half a kilometre to 1km deep along the entire eastern border and 2km deep in the north – has rendered an estimated third of Gaza’s arable land off-limits not only to farmers, but also for grazing animals.

The only alternative to meet a growing meat shortage in Gaza is to import livestock through the tunnels. But such a trade lacks controls, agriculture experts said, and can cause disease. Indeed, unable to import the proper vaccines, Gaza narrowly avoided disaster last year when an outbreak of sheep and goat plague was contained to a few hundred head.

The threat of disease will not stem the demand for meat, however, even if the subterranean trade is not flourishing at the moment. A relative of Mr Qishta, Salah, 45, has intimate ties to the smuggling community. The younger Qishta’s currency exchange shop, near the border to Egypt, doubles up as a kind of court of arbitration whenever there are disputes among tunnel operators or between them and investors.

As a result, Salah has his finger on the pulse of the smuggling industry. And it is not healthy at the moment, he said.

“The market in general is saturated,” Mr Qishta said. “Tunnel operators used to charge $7,000 for the use of a tunnel. Since the war, those fees started tumbling. Now they are down to $200-300.”

Nowhere is this more obvious than at the border strip itself. For most of the past two years, except during the Israeli onslaught early last year, the area, a few kilometres of land separating Gazan Rafah from Egyptian Rafah, has been a beehive of activity. But Monday saw workers idling, seeking shade from the sun and work from passers-by.

Nasser Sagar, 40, is still gainfully employed, however. It helps, he acknowledged, that he had worked on a single tunnel from when it was dug four years ago, until today. It also helps, he said, that the tunnel in question was dug before the industry mushroomed.

Observers said that of an estimated 1,200 tunnels, a number that has doubled since 2008, only 250 are operational today. It is, Salah said, a simple matter of supply and demand, and certainly the basic rules of economic theory appear to have done more damage to an industry than repeated Israeli aerial bombardments and sharpened Egyptian security measures.

Mr Sagar’s tunnel was doing just fine though, he said, and it is not hard to see why. As a feat of engineering it is certainly impressive. Under the nondescript white tarpaulin that covers the opening, a 21-metre deep tunnel runs 750m across to the other side. Underground, a combination of wood and brick cladding gives the tunnel a comfortingly solid feel and though the mouth of the tunnel is a little narrow, one has to walk only 15m before it is possible to stand upright.

The pièce de résistance, though, is the lift, installed, Mr Sagar said, two years ago. The lift enables the tunnel to function as a livestock canal because cows and camels can easily be raised to ground level. When visited earlier this week, the tunnel still retained the aroma of a 200-strong herd of cattle that had passed through Saturday.

“Animals,” said Mr Sagar, “are no harder than other materials to smuggle. Either way.”


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017