Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – The hundreds of underground tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip and Egypt have served as a means of smuggling banned goods into the occupied territories over the past 5 years of Gaza’s international isolation. However today, these tunnel networks are serving a different purpose, namely as a major source of income and wealth for some Gazan citizens, not to mention the Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip.
Thousands of tons of fuel, goods, medicine, building materials such as cement and steel, and even cars and cigarettes are smuggled into the Gaza Strip everyday via these tunnels. There is no accurate figure regarding precisely how much and what is being smuggled into the Gaza Strip, however well-informed sources have claimed that this tunnel network is made up of more than 400 main tunnels, in addition to around 1,000 tributary sun-tunnels.
There are tunnels belonging to Hamas, and which are solely used by the Hamas organization and their affiliates, as well as “public” tunnels. It costs around $80,000 to dig a tunnel, depending on the tunnel’s size and length; however this price is more than worth it as a single tunnel could net the owner $150,000 per day.
A well-informed Palestinian source, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, revealed that “the Hamas tunnel belongs to the [Hamas] movement, and Hamas affiliates are employed there, and this tunnel specializes in the smuggling and importing of special goods for the Hamas movement, including cars and arms.” He added that Hamas elements also uses the tunnel network to enter and exit the Gaza Strip.
As for the public tunnels, the source stressed that “these are owned by ordinary people, and they have partners, sometimes Egyptian Bedouins” adding “these tunnels are subject to Hamas supervision and specialize in the smuggling of goods and commodities.”
Over the past few years, Hamas has formed a special committee to supervise the tunnel network. This committee’s main function is to oversee the tunnel network and determine the appropriate tax that the public tunnel owners must pay on everything being smuggled into the Gaza Strip. This special committee enjoys legitimacy in the underground smuggling network, and following the recent killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers and officers in Rafah, for example, the committee ordered all tunnel owners to shut down their smuggling operations for a period of three days.
This decision had an immediate and explicit impact on life in the Gaza Strip, particularly as Cairo also took the decision to shut down the Rafah Border Crossing during this period. This had a huge impact on the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, not to mention business, with construction projects shutting down and hospitals running low on medicines. This also resulted in the early stages of a full-blown fuel crisis in the Gaza Strip.
This committee monitors and oversees all smuggling, operating as a kind of unofficial customs department, examining goods and even licensing new tunnels.
An Egyptian source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the tunnels have become the primary source of income for the Hamas government” adding “if the subsidized price of a liter of fuel is 80 piasters [in Egypt]…it costs 5 pounds in Gaza” adding “this shows you the kind of profits that we are talking about.”
Reports indicate that approximately 500,000 liters of fuel are smuggled into the Gaza Strip every day. The Egyptian source stressed that “this creates astronomical profits.”
Egypt estimates that the tunnels generate approximately one billion dollars per year, whilst economic experts in Gaza place the figure at a little lower than this.
However nobody knows precisely how much Hamas is making from the tunnels and illegal trade. A source informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Hamas’s income would depend on what is being smuggled, adding “some people place a tax cut on every kilo that is smuggled, others on every ton.”
He added “they charge around 50 cents for liter of petrol, 8 cents for every packet of cigarettes, $15 on every ton of steel and $10 on every ton of cement.”
The source also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “some goods, such as cars, can be taxed as much as 25 percent, in addition to a $2,000 flat fee.”
The Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper estimated that 13,000 cars were smuggled into the Gaza Strip via the tunnels in 2011.
The source stressed that Hamas taxes every item that enters the Gaza Strip via the tunnels.
For its part, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper estimated that control of the tunnels yield around 10 – 15 percent of Hamas’s entire revenues.
Reports indicate that each tunnel can employ as many as 30 workers, and that workers are paid between $60 and $80 per day.
A tunnel worker, speaking on the condition of anonymity, revealed that “working in the tunnels is organized, and the Hamas committee monitors everybody”.
He added “they monitor what is being smuggled and how much it weighs and impose a tax according to this.” The tunnel worker also revealed that the Hamas committee “bans the smuggling of alcohol, arms and drugs.”
Despite the dangers of working in the tunnels, facing the very real threat of suffocation or tunnel collapse, this is a popular and indeed guaranteed way of earning money in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas has completely rejected the closure or destruction of tunnels before the guaranteed opening of the Rafah Border Crossing, and the establishment of a free trade zone between Egypt and Gaza. This demand was put to newly elected Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh during their meeting in Cairo last month.
Hamas views the tunnels as a matter of life and death, whilst the Palestinian Authority [PA] – based in the West Bank – supports their closure and destruction. The PA has claimed that 600 new millionaires have made their fortunes thanks to the tunnels, at the expense of thousands of ordinary workers who are risking their lives.