of tunnels under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt are keeping
many of the Palestinian territory's 1.5 million impoverished residents
supplied with food and fuel.
On Saturday, Egyptian authorities found the entrances of three
tunnels and confiscated a large amount of fuel about to be smuggled into
Sources say there are more than 6,000 Palestinians employed in the
clandestine industry, which merchants say is heavily controlled by the
Strict rules are imposed on what can be brought in - weapons, drugs and
people-trafficking are prohibited - and tunnel operators are taxed.
Ehab Gheissen, a spokesman for the interior ministry in the deposed
Hamas-led government, said: "It is the right of the Palestinian people
to do whatever they can to break the siege they live under.
have a right to do whatever they can to get what they need, including
through tunnels, but at the same time we are watching all of the things
that are being brought in."
The tunnels were previously used to smuggle weapons to fight the Israeli
occupation, but the blockade that was enforced after Hamas seized
control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 has made the smuggling of basic
supplies a necessity.
Shortages have sent prices of flour and milk soaring, and the industry
established around the tunnel smuggling system is now worth millions of
Sami Abdel Shafi, a Gaza-based business analyst, said: "These days, most
of the anecdotal evidence we hear is that the tunnels are being used to
bring in very human items, for lack of proper medicine in the Gaza
are used to bring in shoes, chocolate and 7-Up, things like that.
"Then again, all of the quantities being brought in are being blown out
of proportion I feel, 1.5 million people deserve a lot more than having
to operate under ground, they deserve a much better chance at operating
an economy above ground."
Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin visited a nondescript warehouse in Rafah
where one tunnel operator was waiting for merchants to pick up the goods
that they had ordered.
A diverse range of items, such as cigarettes, teacups and spare parts
for motorcycles, were among the items awaiting collection.
But no matter how important the tunnels are in keeping the
Palestinian economy going, there is a human cost. At least 35 people
have died in the tunnels since the beginning of the year, according to
General Mahmoud Khalaf, a military analyst, told Al Jazeera that the
tunnels should not be seen as a lifeline for the Palestinians.
"These tunnels are not neccessary, and illegal procedures should not be
used to transport goods," he said.
"The fact that these tunnels are seen as vital is an allegation
perpetrated by Hamas to justify these actions. But yes, I do admit the
Israeli-imposed siege has made life harder, but I believe these means
are not the way forward."
Abu Mohammed lost his son and a brother when the tunnel they were
digging fell in on them. Since then, he has stopped his other children
from going down the tunnels.
can we do? We have to eat and they were making money for the family. But
now, I won't allow them to work no matter how poor we are. It's just not
right," he told Al Jazeera.
Gaza, 85 per cent of the population relies on aid and unemployment is
running at 45 per cent.
Egypt is under pressure from Israel to crack down on the tunnels, some
of which are in sight of the border police.
Cairo says it is making efforts to halt the trade, and the UN says that
during a two-day period in August, 28 tunnels were destroyed by the
Mohyeldin reported that some Palestinians even boast that the Egyptians
will never be able to shut all the tunnels because it is also a
lucrative trade for many Egyptians.
But Abdel Shafi warns that longer the tunnels remain a lifeline, the
more it will undermine the chances of a proper Palestinian economy being
"It will have catastrophic consequences in the long term, even if it
does provide or alleviate some of the need for the moment," he said.
"The Gaza Strip cannot be sustained on the operations of the tunnels."
Source: Al Jazeera