Saleh Al-Naami finds that everyday commodities are what form the contraband passing through secret tunnels between Egypt and Gaza
Cairo AL-AHRAM News
Maged Ibrahim hurried to his sister’s house metres away from his own to fetch empty plastic containers. This university professor was out of time. As soon as his nephew, Adham, gave him three containers, Ibrahim sped away in his car to the nearest fuelling station to fill up on gasoline, in order to ensure a minimal supply for his car in case of emergencies. He also uses gasoline for the electricity generator at his home when there are power outages, which can sometimes last up to five hours, since Israel refuses to allow the regular refuelling of the sole power station in the area.
Ibrahim, like many others in Gaza, is desperate to stock up on food and fuel supplies that are smuggled through tunnels after hearing rumours that Egypt intends to build an iron wall on top of these tunnels to collapse them. The tunnels have become a vital source of livelihood and provisions for the people here. The university professor was lucky and filled up on fuel, but the majority return empty handed as gasoline stations run dry.
Salem Al-Othman, a resident of Al-Nosayrat Refugee Camp in the centre of Gaza, owns a grocery shop and is preoccupied with stockpiling merchandise in anticipation of an end to smuggling. Al-Othman went to one of the wholesale merchants in neighbouring Deir Al-Balah to reserve his goods but was surprised that the wholesaler claimed to be out of stock on everything Al-Othman wanted.
At the same time, and unlike most Thursdays, the traditional markets in Gaza, Rafah and other large Palestinian cities that trade in Egyptian goods were very active. Shoppers bought everything in sight, and the uncertainty of what will happen next caused prices to skyrocket, despite warnings against overpricing by Ismail Haniyeh’s government. Meanwhile, Egypt’s iron wall was the talk of the town.
Aisha Maghli, 81, who lives in Al-Satr Al-Sharqi district in Khan Younis, south of Gaza, has been in low spirits of late. Maghli is an asthmatic that in recent years has had fewer episodes because of medication that is smuggled from Egypt through the tunnels. “Shutting down the tunnels and the siege spell doom for my grandmother,” her grandson Hassan told Al-Ahram Weekly. “None of us care about the tunnels, except that they allow us to breathe under siege.” He despondently pleaded, “Please don’t let my grandmother die just because there is no medicine.”
The rumoured wall has been a topic of much debate among young Palestinians also. At many of their gatherings in Gaza, they deliberate on how to render the wall ineffective. News of the wall comes at a time when Palestinians realise the importance of the tunnels in freeing them from the debilitating effects of Israeli-led siege. For example, the tunnels are a major factor in controlling prices since the siege began, and are a source of employment for thousands of people in what is known as the tunnel trade business.
For Salman, 38, tunnel smuggling was a turning point in his life. He began as the owner of a small electrical goods shop and has evolved into a trader of many commodities. Today, he deals in electrical equipment, construction material, livestock, and other goods that are in short supply under siege. Near his house in central Gaza, Salman erected a large paddock for hundreds of cattle that are smuggled through the tunnels. He sells them to smaller merchants and employs between 10 and 20 men to tend to them. “Sometimes the staff work around the clock to meet the demands of the customers,” Salman told the Weekly.
Salman partners with Egyptian merchants who bring goods to the Egyptian side of the tunnels. From there, Salman and his men bring the merchandise through the tunnels after paying a fee to the owners of the tunnel. Tunnel traders prefer not to disclose the value or volume of goods that they bring in from Egypt in order for them to make a reasonable profit.
Although the majority believe these traders make a steep profit, in reality this is not true. Tunnel traders pay their Egyptian counterparts for the goods and then the tunnel owners, as well as the wages of a large number of workers, which necessitates that they considerably raise the price of commodities in order to make a profit. Like other merchants, Salman hopes the siege will end and the tunnels shut down because his is a risky business.
Khamis Al-Daqqa, who sells vegetables, explained how the tunnels have helped keep prices low. Al-Daqqa cited that if large amounts of onions were not pouring through the tunnels, the price of one kilogramme would be around five shekels, or LE6, instead of the current price of two shekels. “The large volume of fruit and vegetables has revived trade and improved the public’s purchasing power,” he told the Weekly.
Before rumours about the iron wall began to circulate, merchants had begun a new practice to drive prices even lower: digging their own tunnels to cut the fee they pay to tunnel owners. One such trader, who previously paid 40 per cent of the value cost to tunnel owners, dug his own tunnel that specialises in the passage of electrical goods and garments. Israel is propagating an untrue and deceitful notion that these tunnels are being used to smuggle weapons and combat supplies. In reality, the tunnels that Israel and its allies are so concerned about are being used to meet everyday basic needs.
One tunnel owner, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Weekly that all the tunnels he is familiar with are used to smuggle basic civilian goods and merchandise. His tunnel is dedicated to medication and some foodstuffs that are secured by his partners on the other side of the border. He receives the goods at his end of the tunnel and distributes them based on orders placed by medicine dispensaries. He and his partners receive a set fee from the dispensaries for each delivery.
Deputy parliament speaker Ahmed Bahr is certain that the Egyptian leadership will not allow the people of Gaza to starve. “President [Hosni] Mubarak promised not to allow Palestinians to go hungry,” Bahr told the Weekly. “I am positive he will keep his word and will stand by our people.” He added that Egypt’s national security is “just as important to us as Palestinian national security. Hence, Gaza has not been — and will never be — a source of threat to Egypt’s security.”
Bahr concluded: “The threat comes from Israel.”
Israel has been saying is that Egyptians are sending weapons into Gaza which is not true. We all knew that of course.
It is Egyptians who bring the supplies to the tunnels to send into Gaza.
The so called Iron wall is as illegal as is the wall that Israel has built. The International Court has already ruled it illegal.
The US is helping to build this new iron wall.
Egypt gets about 2 billion for weapons so I am guessing there is a connection between the aid for weapons Israels whining and the US.
The International community must get the seige lifted on Gaza.
If Israel refuses they should be sanctioned the same as any other state that does this type of horror to people.