RAFAH - Tarik Abu Kheir, a construction worker in his mid-thirties, moved two years ago from the Egyptian Nile Delta governorate of Beheira to the Egyptian side of Rafah, a town straddling the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, because there was money to be made digging illegal tunnels.
“I had nothing to do back in my village… Some of my friends preceded me here and kept talking about the huge money they earned digging tunnels. This was why I came,” he said.
Abu Kheir earned the equivalent of US$50 an hour and sent the money to his parents back in Beheira so they could build him a home. The pay was high, he added, because the job was very risky.
Today, the home is not finished, and Abu Kheir feels his job might be in jeopardy following the opening of the border on 28 May, allowing all Palestinian women, minors and men aged over 40 to pass freely from Gaza into Egypt through Rafah for the first time in four years. So far the easing does not include the lifting of the ban on trade.
While Palestinians have welcomed the reopening, Egyptians benefiting from “the tunnel economy” say they fear their businesses could fold and jobs could be lost if Rafah finally fully opens, allowing legitimate trade.
“The opening of the border crossing is a great thing for the Palestinians, yet it is the worst thing that can happen to the hundreds of people involved in the tunnel business,” said Yehia Abu Nuseirah, a tribal leader from the Sinai Peninsula. “Apart from the tight supervision the government imposes on everything here, the opening of the crossing will sooner or later kill off the tunnels.”
The entry of goods to Gaza is still restricted to Israeli-controlled crossings and subject to their ban on construction materials and most exports. They fear the opening of Rafah to trade would enable the unfettered ferrying of weapons into Gaza, under the control of the Islamic resistance movement Hamas.
Ghazi Hamad, director of crossings in Gaza, told IRIN that Hamas is currently negotiating with the new Egyptian authorities to extend the policy of free travel to men aged 18-40.
“We hope that Rafah will be operating normally without restrictions for commercial exchange so that Israel cannot blackmail us with their control over our borders.
“We are in contact with Egypt now to try to solve that problem.”
The tunnel trade provides lucrative work not only for residents of Rafah but for many other Egyptians who sought work here.
Blockade created jobs
“The Gaza blockade allowed the tunnel trade to thrive, bringing an endless flow of capital to the town,” said Tawfiq Nassrallah, coordinator of the Justice and Equality Movement, an association of communities from the Sinai Peninsula which campaigns for jobs and improved living conditions. “True, the people of Gaza have suffered a lot from this blockade, but the same blockade brought huge money and created jobs here,” he told IRIN in Rafah.
The exact number of tunnels between the Egyptian town of Rafah and Gaza is not known, but they form an extensive underground network through which everything - from people and weapons, crushed stones and cement, to livestock and cars - was smuggled in or out of Gaza.
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, referring to the tunnels, used to mock the Israelis, saying: “Close them at your end if you know where they are” - although many of the entrances are plain to spot on the Gaza side, clustered under tarpaulins around 300 metres from the border fence.
On Palestinian territory, the tunnels operate under the supervision of Hamas, who take a fee from tunnel owners according to the goods that pass through.
Prior to Israel’s “easing” of the blockade in 2010, an estimated 80 percent of goods in Gaza’s stores were smuggled through the border with Egypt. Now most consumer goods in the markets and corner shops come from Israel. The tunnel trade has become restricted for the most part to construction materials, cars, petrol and weapons.
For every car that comes from Egypt, tunnel workers say that the buyers will pay an additional $1,000 to Hamas and $6,000 to the tunnel owner. It is still a lucrative business.
“I make good money bringing through gravel because everyone wants to build in Gaza,” said Mohamed, 24, who works in a tunnel bringing gravel through from Egypt. Gravel, cement and steel are banned by the Israelis on the grounds that they can have military application.
“I bring 100 tons of gravel every day through the tunnels. The bigger tunnels bring through iron, stone and cement.” Mohamed sells every ton of cement for 40 shekels (NIS - US$12) and takes home 120 NIS ($35) himself each day, he told IRIN. “The tunnel goes down 29 metres. There are nine people down there now. They stay down there from 7am until 7pm. These days, it is mostly just stones and iron that come through the tunnels from Egypt.”
On the Rafah side, Abu Kheir, who used to start his tunnel digging at daybreak and continue till sunset, said the work was risky. A few months ago a tunnel he was working on collapsed burying three of his workmates. “We retrieved their bodies later, but there was no sign of life in them,” he told IRIN. “I am very grateful that I am still alive.”
He also expressed concern that he may not now be able to make enough money to marry a wife, before perking up: “I assure you there will always be a need for the tunnels as long as both Israel and Hamas are there.”