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Gaza’s ‘Tunnel Economy’ Is Booming

Dangerous Passages: Palestinians examine damage after Israel bombs a tunnel connecting Gaza to Egypt. Image by getty images

In early November, Muhammad Al Qotati, a worker at the smuggling tunnels in Rafah, Gaza, welcomed my friend, journalist Nick Pelham, and me to a walk-around. The area he showed us is less than half a mile from the town of Rafah and about the distance of a football field from Egypt; it looks a bit like a highway construction project, except that it is dotted with hundreds of tents, many of them covering tunnel entrances. And unlike some highway projects, this one is a beehive of activity: workers, earth-moving equipment and transportation vehicles operating night and day. The town of Rafah, too, is booming because of the tunnel economy.

Gazans had discouraged us from trying to visit the tunnels. In fact, the Gazan who took us to Rafah would not come with us to the tunnel site. But I was curious, and Nick, who has been there before, felt that the tunnel area was safe, and so, without having made any prior arrangements, and in the hope that we could get close enough to see something, we persuaded a reluctant taxi driver to take us to a gate at the site, where a guard asked us for identification. Soon, five big men with very big guns gathered, examining and passing around my passport. At that point I got spooked, but before I could figure out how to flee, one of the men told us we could enter; accompanied by all five, including Muhammad, we did.

Palestinians lead a goat through a Gaza tunnel. Image by getty images

Muhammad’s English was pretty good; he had studied it in school and had worked in Saudi Arabia for four years, in the construction business, dealing with many Americans. Other than telling us we could not take any photos, he could not have been friendlier. The first tunnel he took us to was a few yards wide and very deep, then making a sharp left turn to Egypt. As we watched, the workers hauled up construction material that had just come through from Egypt in a bucket operated by a motorized winch. The men laughingly asked us if we wanted to get in the bucket and go down, and we laughingly declined. The mood was almost convivial, and they, I think, were delighted by the rare presence of an American. I was no longer terrified, but I was very much aware of who had the guns. And I kept remembering the Italian journalist who was killed in Gaza last year.

They asked if we wanted to see more, and we did. They took us to a much larger tunnel whose entrance was a gradual slope so as to allow people and animals to walk in and through. We wiggled into the opening with half our bodies, contemplating sliding down the slope and whether to accept Muhammad’s invitation to take the 10-minute walk to Egypt. We declined again, although in retrospect I wish we had accepted. They explained — and we of course knew — that there are much bigger tunnels, large enough for a truck to drive through.

There was absolutely nothing furtive about any of this (it is different on the Egypt side, where commerce with Gaza is not yet officially approved), and Muhammad was obviously proud of the operation. He said he knew that it might soon be coming to an end if a new government in Egypt officially opened the border, rendering the tunnels obsolete. When I noted that the tunnels’ owners would see the value of their investment disappear, he said: “Don’t cry for them. They have become very rich.” And his parting words? “Please tell your friends that Hamas people are ordinary people. We are not barbarians.”

Back in Gaza City, we spoke to seven Hamas officials. and only one advocated closing the tunnels now, even in advance of a free trade zone with Egypt, mainly because of the smuggling of guns and drugs (which we did not witness). “Tunnels were a vital lifeline,” said Huda Naim Naim, member of Hamas’s politburo and head of the Committee on Monitoring and Human Rights, “but now Gaza has everything, and they should be closed.”

Gaza does not in fact have everything, but it certainly has a lot. There are construction projects all over Gaza City, consumer products for those who can afford them, and two or three very good hotels. And if you are an international tourist, it is hard to get a bad meal (while as many as 54% of Gazans are too poor to afford adequate food, according to a recent report from the United Nations). Nearly everyone I spoke to — mostly Hamas officials, but also others — seemed to feel a great sense of pride in what he or she had survived, and confidence in the future. They all believe that Hamas triumphed in the prisoner-exchange deal with Israel, that despite international condemnation and punishment they are thriving, and that cutting all ties with Israel has been to Gaza’s benefit. Many seem to think that reconciliation with Fatah is probable, and with it, national elections. They see the Americans engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and think that Hamas — and its further prosperity and legitimacy — may not be far behind. As one Gazan put it, “Time is on our side.”

Kathleen Peratis is a partner at the New York law firm of Outten & Golden LLP and co-chair of the Middle East and North Africa Advisory Committee of Human Rights Watch.

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