Omar Ghraieb
The Media Line
August 21, 2011 - 12:00am

RAFAH, Gaza – Just a few months ago, Abu Ola, a 60-year-old Gazan, thought the future of his tunnel business was bleak.

Israel had eased its blockade on the Gaza Strip in the spring of 2010, allowing everything from concrete to confections into the Hamas-ruled enclave and putting and a damper on the smuggling trade. Then, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing last May, making it easier for people to get in and out. With business drying up, Ola dismissed half of his 13-man workforce.

The much anticipated opening of the Rafah terminal – the single crossing point for people between Gaza and the outside world -- whet their taste for travel without sating it. As a result, demand to get people over the border into Egypt and back has swelled. Tunnel operators say business is strong again, giving them the incentive to keep their underground passages open and maybe even expand them.

“Tunnels that smuggle people weren’t popular before and there were only one or two of them. But since there’s no point in sending goods through them, many of us are thinking about switching to smuggling people,” Ola told The Media Line. “We don’t even need to smuggle cars anymore, because Israel is letting cars enter Gaza. Rafah is messed up, so many people are resorting to tunnels to get in and out of here.”

That’s good news for tunnel entrepreneurs like Ola as well as the many Gazans with legitimate reasons to travel, whether they are family members seeking to be reunited or someone in need of urgent medical care. But it’s bad news for Israel, which believes the attack on its border with Egypt last week that left eight dead was the work of terrorists smuggled out of Gaza through one of the underground passages.

The thriving tunnel business, together with the growing lawlessness in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula adjacent to Israel and Gaza, has made it easier than ever for gunmen to cross the border with weapons and supplies. Israeli officials say that last week’s attacks, which occurred some 180 kilometers (110 miles) from the Gaza Strip, could have only succeeded if the perpetrators travelled from Gaza through Egypt to the Israeli border.

The Israeli Air Force responded top the attack by bombing the tunnels, but with hundreds of the underground passages and no effective means of locating and destroying them, the raids are unlikely to act as much of a deterrent.

Take the case of MS, age 29. He and his older brother had left Gaza for a European country several years ago, where they established a successful business and eventually received European passports. When their mother died earlier this year, they were determined to make a trip home -- despite the Arab Spring turmoil in Egypt -- through which they would have to pass on the way to Gaza. Knowing the problems going through Rafah, they felt they had little choice, said MS, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Once we heard about the tunnel that smuggles people and we booked our flight to Egypt in a heartbeat,” MS told The Media Line. “We arrived at the Cairo airport, left our luggage at a friend’s house and went immediately to the tunnel area. I went in with my brother and we arrived at Rafah after a horrifying trip through a small tunnel. We stayed two days in Gaza where we buried our mom and said our goodbyes to her and our family then used the same tunnel to go back to Egypt.”

MS and his brother stayed another two days in Egypt so as not to arouse the suspicions of the Egyptian authorities and then left for Europe.

The Rafah opening was supposed to put the tunnels out of business, but that hasn’t been the case so far. Applicants must pre-register and the waiting list to get across is months long and conditions are chaotic. Of Gaza’s 1.3 million people, only a few hundred manage to get through every day.

Worse still, someone who does manage to get into Gaza via the official terminal risks not being able to get out again because of the bureaucratic tangle (only Palestinians holding Palestinian identification papers and passports can enter Gaza but only Palestinians with international passports can leave Gaza easily; but you cant use both). Delays leaving Gaza could mean a traveler finding his or her visa and/or work permit expiring. By comparison, passage through a tunnel takes a few minutes, no questions asked.

That’s why Ahmed Salem, 53 and the father of two married sons living in Egypt, took the tunnel. Suffering from severe stomach pains, he opted first for the official route, registering on the Hamas Interior Ministry’s website to leave Gaza for medical treatment. At first, he didn’t even consider the tunnel alternative because of the danger and discomfort. But as he waited for his name to come up, his condition grew worse and no approval was forthcoming, so Salem finally gave in.

“I was dying anyway and didn’t have anything to lose, so I went through with it. I went through the tunnel and felt nothing. I reached Egypt, visited my sons, got the medical treatment and even stayed for recovery and rejuvenation,” Salem told The Media Line. “Of course, I took a risk by travelling in Egypt without a stamp on my passport, but it was worth it. The way back was frightening because I was cured and could now lose my life any second in this little tunnel.” Salem called the journey terrifying and said he would never do it again unless his health was at risk.

Strangely enough, Hamas says it is determined to crack down on the tunnel business and plans to station 500 guards, place barbed wire and other barriers on the border with Egypt as part of a plan to end smuggling and force Gazans to use Rafah. “The plan aims to make sure that no individual can enter or exit the Gaza Strip in an informal manner because the official transportation method is Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.” Ihab Ghussein, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, told The Media Line.

Travelling by tunnels has a lot of advantages over Rafah, but it isn’t easy. Mohammed, a tunnel worker who asked to be identified only by his first name, explains how it works. The traveler first meets with Mohammed’s boss to learn about the risks involved and is assigned a day and time for the crossing. With an escort, the traveler is lowered into the tunnel by ropes or can climb down a wooden ladder, he says.

The most ambitious tunnel operators have installed tracks and electric carts inside the passages themselves. Once as long as a kilometer to avoid Egyptian police, they are now a fraction of that length. But the tunnels aren’t for the claustrophobic – they are narrow and there is always the risk of collapse from an Israeli raid or under the weight of homes and other buildings on the surface.

The tunnel worker leads the way, with the traveler following. Sometimes two travelers will go together if they agree. On the Egyptian side, a ropes or a ladder serve to bring them to the surface.

Another tunnel worker, who asked to be identified only as Ibrahim, said his boss charges people $50 each for the passage. He has to think before answering a question as to how much business his tunnel did everyday; business varies from month-to-month and day-to-day, but is good enough that he had to do some mental calculations.

After rubbing his head, he concluded: “We can smuggle 30-50 people a day and we work most days in a good month and sometimes less.”

Mohammed says that a lot of the tunnel travelers are merchants or people who hold dual nationalities but can’t take advantage of their two passports to enter and exit Gaza easily. But they are a minority. “From my experience, I’d say that 90% of the people who are willing to endanger their lives and pass through this tunnel suffer from a lethal disease and need urgent medical assistance.”


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