The demise of the tunnel trade

Since Israel announced it would allow more goods into the besieged strip, businessmen have steered clear of the tunnels

Times are tough in the tunnel trade. Underground smuggling from Egypt to Gaza is winding down.

Since Israel announced it would allow more goods into the besieged strip, businessmen have steered clear of the tunnels, and held off placing any new orders for goods from Egypt.

So the dusty, once thriving community of smuggling tents in the southern city of Rafah is looking rather forlorn.

It’s a story Hamas does not appear keen to have told.

The group’s interior ministry recently issued an edict that smugglers can no longer allow camera crews to film their tents and tunnels. And very few smugglers will openly defy the authority of Hamas, especially when business is in the doldrums.

Tunnels and jobs

Even still, our cameraman was able to take some pictures of perhaps the last days of the tunnel trade, while we tried to secure permission to film there. In the end, no permission was granted.

The rise and fall of the tunnel trade exposes a cruel irony for many of its young workers. They don’t want to live under siege, but for the last three of four years the tunnel trade has given them a job and a purpose.

As the tunnels start to close down, they’ll be out of a job. Israel’s so-called “easing” of the siege is not aimed at creating any new work opportunities in Gaza. So as one industry ends – there’s no sign of a new one.

Exports from the strip are still blocked, travel between Gaza and the West Bank banned, raw materials are difficult to get, and construction material is still not allowed in unless it’s for special UN projects. Even the UN says it’s not getting enough to get on with its building programme which has been on hold for three years.

At a tunnel which specialises in ceramic tiles, we met a group of teenagers working as smugglers. Nineteen-year-old Mohammed Saedi lost the top of all the fingers on his left hand, from above the knuckles. He was injured when they were caught up in one of the steel-rope pulley systems that hauls goods through the dirt passages.

He is one of the lucky ones in the tunnel trade. Mohammed is still alive.

More than 150 men have died working in the tunnels, from Israeli airstrikes, Egyptian attacks, electric faults and tunnels collapsing.

The tunnel investors

The owner of the tile-smuggling business, Abu Mohammed, calls them the “tunnels of death”.

He’s watching his $500,000 investment slowly go out of business. But even he wants to see an end to the trade. Abu Mohammed wants all the borders re-opened and normal trade of people and goods between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to resume.

The current situation, a very limited easing of the siege, puts an end to the tunnels business – but fails to create any other business.

We are taken into one of the newest smuggling tents in Rafah. So new in fact that it’s never been used. The owner’s $150,000 investment has literally gone into a big dark hole underground.

Workers finished digging the tunnel when Israel announced it would allow more goods into Gaza.

The tunnels have become one of the most emblematic symbols of Gaza under siege. But as the tunnels close, it’s important to remember the siege continues.

The borders are still not open and Gazans are denied the right to travel.

Don’t be deceived by the tunnel closure.