Egypt’s imminent completion of an above-and-below-ground steel barrier along its border with the Gaza Strip is putting Gazans on edge: How will they survive without the huge trade conducted via underground tunnels?
A lucrative tunnel smuggling trade in a range of commodities took off after Israel imposed an economic embargo on the Strip after a Hamas takeover in June 2007. The World Bank and Palestinian economists estimate that at least 80 percent of Gaza's total imports come through the tunnels.
“Digging tunnels and working in them is one of the few jobs available for Palestinian youth in Gaza,” Omar Sha’ban, a Gazan economist, said.
“Tunnel workers reportedly earn US$25 per day, a huge sum in the current Palestinian economy. However, they are subjected to daily bombings… by the Israeli Air Force, tunnel collapses and fires.”
Ziad al-Zaza, economy minister in the Hamas government, said there were some 20,000 tunnel workers before Israel’s military operation in Gaza in early 2009, and about half that number now. The Israeli military said it damaged or destroyed 60-70 percent of the tunnels in the offensive.
Tunnel owner and manager Abu Antar*, 45, said an end to the tunnels between Gaza and Rafah in Egypt would mean no income for him and thousands of others who rely on the tunnels for work.
“We have succeeded in cutting through the Egyptian fence, but the thing we are afraid of now is that the Egyptians will electrify it and add seismic sensors to detect us underground, which would make our mission impossible. Tunnels are our only source of living,” the father of seven said.
Egypt’s steel barrier will be 10-11km long and will extend 18 meters below ground on completion, the Egyptian authorities have said. Egyptian daily al-Shorouq recently reported that “work on the main wall is in its fourth and final stage," after which cameras and detection devices will be installed.
It is believed this process will take a few weeks and then will undergo a testing period before becoming fully operational.
Abu Antar said the tunnel he owns has 50 people working in it.
“Every day we work in the tunnels and wonder if we’ll get out alive. Many times the earth has collapsed… Death is inevitable in this type of work. We are dealing with fear 24 hours a day. Many people have died. Every month there are more causalities in the tunnels from the continuous [Israeli] air strikes,” he said.
Accidents in the tunnels are frequent. According to Palestinian human rights organization Al-Mezan, 120 tunnel traders have been killed over the past three years.