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Smuggling Tunnels Become Lifelines for Impoverished Gaza

April 03, 2012

Scott Bobb | Gaza

As Gazans struggle under a trade blockade imposed by Israel, a thriving alternative is giving new meaning to the term "underground economy." Some goods are reaching Gaza, thanks to smuggling tunnels underneath the border with Egypt.

One of Gaza's major economic lifelines is a smuggling tunnel, 20 meters underground, stretching some 200 meters from Gaza into Egypt.

It is used primarily to smuggle cement and gravel and some consumer goods. Many tunnels have electricity and communication systems. Some have railway tracks. A few are large enough to drive a car through.

Conditions are harsh for the tunnel workers, who do not want to be identified. They work 12-hour shifts. Equipment breakdowns are frequent as are cave-ins that sometimes are deadly.

There are hundreds of smuggling tunnels. Egyptian authorities turn a blind eye to the traffic. Israeli security forces stationed a few kilometers away do the same, although they worry that some tunnels are used to supply Palestinian militants in Gaza with weapons and explosives.

Israel allows some goods to pass legally through this overland crossing. The government has partially lifted a blockade imposed after the militant Hamas movement took power in Gaza. Israel considers Hamas a terrorist group.

But most goods come through the tunnels. They have permitted a construction boom in Gaza, where demand is high because of the five-year long blockade.

Economists say the tunnels boost Gaza's economy, which the Palestinian Authority says grew by 30 percent in the final three months of last year. But Gaza-based analyst Sami Abdul-Shafi says the figures are misleading.

"We are coming to this position from a near zeroed-out economy. So any improvement you have over zero must be acknowledged as positive. But still your baseline is zero. So I think we have a long ways to go," Abdul-Shafi said.

Hamas wants Egypt to open its Rafah crossing to commerce and legitimize trading ties. Cairo refuses all but emergency crossings because it wants Israel to continue to be seen as responsible for Gaza's suffering.

Hamas Spokesman Ismail Radwan says relations with Egypt have improved since the revolution brought Islamist parties sympathetic to Hamas to power in parliament. He hopes they will help alleviate the Gazan's suffering.

“We hope that our sister Egypt will break the siege and help our Palestinian people. No doubt our relations are developing positively," Radwan said.

For the moment, however, shortages of fuel and electricity continue to stifle most economic activity in Gaza, causing contamination of water supplies and crippling services like ambulances, hospitals and schools. Without the tunnels, things would be far worse.

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