Gaza tunnel closures add to economic crisis

Egypt has been tearing down Gaza’s tunnels into the country, shutting off much needed supplies for civilians.

In March, Egyptian authorities announced the destruction of 1,370 tunnels along the Gaza border [Reuters]

Rafah, Gaza Strip Two men load boxes onto a solitary motorcycle-pulled trailer in an otherwise deserted pavilion. 

The Gaza Strip’s customs and excise terminal on the southern border with Egypt, once a hive of activity, now sees barely a trickle of imports after the Egyptian military began destroying Gaza’s extensive network of smuggling tunnels, following the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Adjacent to the empty terminal and backing onto a collection of decrepit, bullet-ridden apartment buildings, a bank of metal-framed structures stretch across into the distance. Each white covering shelters the entrance to a privately owned smuggling tunnel, the closure of which has further crippled an already besieged Gazan economy.

In March, Egyptian authorities announced the destruction of 1,370 tunnels along the Gaza border. 

“They’re working very hard to destroy all the tunnels now,” Hamas border guard Muhammad Abu Hossam told Al Jazeera from his guard post along the Gaza-Egyptian border. “You see the explosions on their side, it’s like a war. Yesterday it was 20 and today it was 10.”

Israel’s imposed land and sea blockade of Gaza, approaching its eighth year, lead to the construction of tunnels to import medicine, food, consumer goods and building materials. While some speculators made small fortunes on tunnel construction, the network sustained many livelihoods through labouring, distribution and the supply of materials to the construction industry.

“The tunnel was destroyed two months ago when the Egyptians filled it with water,” Ahmad, a labourer who worked in the tunnels, says, nodding towards the dark entrance. “Now, there’s nothing to do and there’s no chance for the people to work. If the tunnels are open, there is work in Gaza. I have a wife and two children to feed and I worry for them. I’m lucky to still have a job watching the entrance.”

While operating, the tunnel employed around 20 people to move goods underground, load them onto trucks and distribute them around Gaza.

“I used to get paid 80 shekels [$23] per day – carrying sand during construction and carrying the goods onto the waiting trucks,” Ahmad said.

‘Open and vulnerable’

During the year-long presidency of Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood movement inspired the formation of Hamas, Gaza’s government allowed relations to deteriorate with long-time supporters Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. Therefore, last year’s military coup in Egypt left Hamas isolated and seemingly vulnerable.

All sectors of life are being impacted.

by - Isra al-Modallal, Hamas spokesperson

The demolition of Gaza’s tunnel network along with the virtual closure of the official Rafah border crossing, which is open rarely and sporadically, form part of a hostile view from Cairo of Gaza’s Hamas government. Egypt alleges links between Hamas and armed groups operating out of the Sinai, and on March 4, the Egyptian High Court banned Hamas from operating in Egypt and the government designated the movement a “terrorist organisation“.

Increased monetary constraints are testing the government’s ability to function. The Ministry of Economy estimates revenue losses from imports at $460m from July to December, and 50,000 civil servants have received only partial salaries for the past four months.

“The government is facing many problems but our government workers support our movement and we have an emergency plan but not enough money,” Isra al-Modallal, a Hamas spokesperson, told Al Jazeera, adding that the Israeli and Egyptian blockades were collective punishment and producing a humanitarian crisis.

“All sectors of life are being impacted. Tunnels were the life stream of Gaza and their closure affects all sectors of the economy and places large problems in front of the government, but it is the people who are really being punished and they’ve done nothing,” she said. “They need independence, freedom and justice but instead they’re talking about electricity, food and water.”

Amid the growing crisis tensions are escalating between Gaza’s armed factions and Israel. On March 12, Islamic Jihad fired in excess of 70 rockets at Israel following the assassination of three of its members in Rafah. Despite this incident, the ceasefire with Israel, overseen by Hamas with the consent of the various factions and in place since November 2012, appears to have held.

“We can control security in Gaza but we can’t control a popular uprising,” al-Modallal warned. “We can’t control a third intifada.”

Rampant shortages

Pressure is mounting on civilians in Gaza – nearly 60 percent of whom are food insecure and where only five percent of the local water is fit for consumption. The UN estimates unemployment has risen from 32.5 percent in September, to around 40 percent. In addition to people directly employed by tunnels, the shortage of materials has stopped the majority of construction projects in Gaza and left many jobless. Rising prices are placing further pressures on Gaza’s 1.7 million residents.

We hope the border will open and we can bring what we want to legally but now there are no lights in the street and there is no hope.

by - Masrool Ramadan, proprietor of Abu Musa Electronics

After initial shortages, Israel increased fuel imports 20-fold to offset cheaper fuel previously coming from Egypt, but the price has doubled. The price of cooking gas increased over 20 percent and bread and rice prices have risen 11 and 33 percent respectively.

The changes can be measured in the purchase of consumer goods. Masrool Ramadan, proprietor of Abu Musa Electronics in Rafah, said nobody is buying unless it’s out of necessity.

“If somebody needs to buy and they can afford it, they buy, but now there is no market and the situation is bad,” he said, nodding to some refrigerators in front of his shop. “We used to get brand new Japanese and Korean fridges from Egypt but now all we can get is second-hand Israeli products. It’s very hard to buy from Israel. Our goods come through the crossings and we have to pay holding fees for each day that they are there. Sometimes they can wait for one month and we have to pass that cost on.”

Masrool acknowledged the tunnel economy was only a temporary solution and seeks a permanent improvement in relations between Gaza and the outside world.

“They made the tunnels because we had no choice – that’s what we had to do to live,” he said. “Everybody knew they were for a moment and not forever. We hope the border will open and we can bring what we want legally, but now there are no lights in the street and there is no hope.”

For those who invested in the tunnel economy their perception of the situation depends on the level of their losses. Omar Ezam is able to consider things philosophically as he sits above his destroyed tunnel looking at the pile of twisted steel and rubble that was once a house sheltering the Egyptian entrance to his tunnel.

“Look at these roads. They were once busy with trucks but now the dogs own them,” he says waving towards a pack of dogs wandering in the distance. He sits on top of a pile of sandbags that run in front of the tunnels to shield activity from the eyes of Egyptian soldiers over the border.

“Morsi was all flowers and roses – that was real life!” he said. “We have hope but for Sisi to go, until then it’s hard to see anything happening,” Omar said. “The Egyptian people have the right to choose their leaders but we ask them not to forget their brothers in Gaza. We need to breathe too.”