Every day during last week’s clashes between Gaza and Israel, Abu Bilal came to check on his family’s tunnel, which runs under the enclave’s border with Egypt. As bombs rained down, he peered at it from a safe distance—trying to keep tabs on his livelihood.
Today Bilal is more fortunate than many tunnel owners; after eight days of Israeli bombing, his passageway is still intact. “We were so lucky it was not damaged. If it were damaged we would have to start rebuilding it right away and that would be expensive,” he says. “But there is a lot of damage after the war, lots of damage at the border, and there are a lot of families that rely on these tunnels for money.”
Gaza’s smuggling tunnels are one of the Israeli government’s biggest grievances. Israel says the tunnels bring drugs, weapons, and missiles into the strip, while most Palestinians say this is how they have survived five years of a stifling economic blockade.
The hundreds, if not thousands, of passages under the border have become an inevitable part of life in Gaza and have shown incredible resilience despite repeated attempts by Israel and Egypt to shut them down. Perhaps the only thing that could render them obsolete is an easing of the blockade—but the intense activity in the tunnel zone suggests no one expects that any time soon.
Two days after the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, Bilal’s employees are already back at work bringing shipments of construction pebbles by pulley system through the mile-long narrow passageway that snakes from the Egyptian side.
When The Daily Beast visited, the labyrinth of tunnels was buzzing with activity—generators hummed, pulleys screeched, and tractors shifted sand. Owners, like Bilal, whose tunnels were still standing already had orders from traders to bring shipments across. Others, who were not as lucky, had begun to rebuild.
While many details of the latest ceasefire have yet to be solidified, rumors of a possible easing of the Israeli-led blockade seems to be having no effect on the resilient contraband industry. On Saturday, Hamas announced Egyptian officials would meet Israeli counterparts on Monday to continue to hammer out details of the ceasefire—including opening border crossings to ease the movement of goods and people. Israel declined to confirm the meeting.
But traders and analysts here believe there is no way the Netanyahu government will allow in the type of goods—specifically construction materials that the Jewish state says can be used by militants for bunkers, but which are also needed to build pretty much anything else—that would affect their brisk trade.
“As long as we have any blockade, we have tunnels,” says Sameer Abumdallala, dean of the economics department at the Al Azhar University in Gaza, who has studied the tunnel sector. “In each war, they destroy some tunnels, and it affects specific workers, but it doesn’t change the industry.”
Abumdallala says there are now roughly 2,000 tunnels, up from 50 passageways that dealt mainly in weapons and drugs prior to the Israeli-led blockade in 2007. The industry employs between 12,000 to 15,000 Gazans, and most tunnels operate in two shifts, 24 hours a day, providing a much-needed lifeline in all kinds of goods—from food stuffs to building materials, like wood, metal, and cement.
The Hamas government makes sure it gets its cut, Abumdallala says—levying a $3,000 permit to dig a tunnel and $800 to register for its electricity supply. It also collects a tax from traders who purchase and transport the goods. He says smuggled goods from Egypt make up 75 percent of goods on the Gazan market, while government regulation of the trade provides 15 percent of Hamas’s yearly budget.
Zyad Shami works in a tunnel that specializes in bringing in gasoline. Tanker trucks pump the gas from beneath the ground. Shami used to work as a taxi driver, but four years ago he realized there was more money in the tunnel trade. He says he makes about $388 per month, working 12-hour shifts every day to support his pregnant wife and two children.
The work is dangerous, aside from being targeted by Israeli airstrikes; tunnels frequently collapse on their own, injuring laborers. “There are no other jobs,” Shami says, shaking off the day-to-day dangers of the industry. “During the war, the government called to say it was too dangerous to work, but everyone is back to work now.” Shami doesn’t believe his job is going away soon.
Other tunnel owners are not so fortunate. Along the tunnel corridor, destruction from the recent war is everywhere. Twisted metal from tent frames and strips of tarp that used to cover passageway entrances are everywhere, with mounds of sand from explosions forming hills in the sandy earth.
Where one tunnel owner’s entrance stood, there is now a massive crater from an airstrike. He has yet to unearth the sand to find the pathway. His workers are gathered around him, waiting for a rented Caterpillar to arrive to even try to find the opening.
The owner, declining to give his name, says reconstruction might run as high as $20,000, a price he and his nine partners are willing to pay to restart their trade.
“No one knows if the borders will open. If they do, the tunnels might close, but no one knows,” he says softly. “But for now we will rebuild it, because no one knows.”