Where the Still Flourishing Underground Economy Is the Only Economy
RAFAH, Egypt — From the rooftops you can see tall buildings, and trucks pulling through streets teeming with people. You can hear generators humming, and the rumble of construction gear. From the rooftops, you can see Gaza.
But down below on the streets here, it is quiet, the kind of quiet that says people have been driven out. Stores were long ago abandoned. The street is buckled in places, and litter is piled along the curb. Residents have fled the war over the border, the heavy pressure from Egyptian security, the emptiness of life in Rafah.
“All we have,” said Muhammad Sha’er, as he looked from a rooftop into Gaza, “are the tunnels.”
Early Wednesday morning, Israel again bombed the tunnels that stretch under the border from Gaza into Egypt. The bombings followed a 22-day Israeli offensive to stop Hamas’s rocket fire, which was followed by international negotiations aimed at ending smuggling into Gaza.
But here in Rafah, people were still trying to smuggle goods through tunnels, hours before and hours after the bombing Wednesday morning. Rafah is a bleak, rutted, dusty town that bears more than passing resemblance to Baghdad after years of international sanctions.
“On the other side, they want to eat,” said Ayed el-Sayah, a furniture maker in town, referring to Gaza. “Here we want to eat, too. That’s why we have the tunnels.”
These are tense days in this shattered town of about 50,000 in the northeastern corner of Sinai. It has become the focus of an intense effort to stop smuggling activities, but the focus has been exclusively on security. Checkpoints have been set up, and the police often stop young men in cars and demand to see identification. The center of the town feels as if it is occupied.
But with every Israeli bomb just over the border, and with every increase in Egyptian security, there is less and less room for any kind of normal life. The streets are filled with idle young men, children and old men, all with nowhere to go and little to do. Women stay at home.
“We only wish we didn’t have to do this, that we had another job or a project, something else we can do,” said a 22-year-old, who asked not to be identified for fear of being imprisoned for his work as a smuggler.
The young man graduated with a degree in commerce from the equivalent here of a junior college. He said he began working a tunnel only recently because there was nothing else for him to do to make a living, or to occupy his time.
He and a cousin, 19, who also is a smuggler, were huddled together in a new imported car, one of the fruits of the trade, parked outside a friend’s house. It was a chilly desert night, the sky shocked with stars, and the young men were wired and nervous, smoking one cigarette after another.
The broad outlines of the tunnels are well known from the Gaza side. They are about 6 feet high and 3 feet wide. They are typically 65 feet or so below the surface, have pulley systems and lighting and ventilation. The Hamas government charges for the electricity used.
Little discussed is how the tunnels work on the Egyptian side, and why state security has been so unsuccessful in finding them. They are begun in Gaza in full view of Egypt’s border guards, after all, and nearly everyone here admits to either working in the tunnels or being related to someone who is.
The young men say that most people no longer have the tunnels come up inside their homes, because if they are caught they have no room for denial, and the whole family could be imprisoned. The openings are lined with tarps and filled with sand. When the tunnel owner in Gaza wants to make a run, he phones and the young men assemble a small group of trusted partners. They then dig out the sand, pull out the plastic tarps and pass through food, clothing or whatever has been ordered.
“It is a family affair, but not everyone knows where the hole is,” said the 19-year-old. “There are only a very few people you can trust and rely on. You make a deal with four or five other guys and that’s it, it stays between you.”
The young men said that most tunnels also have a pipe running through, a couple of inches in diameter. They said the pipes were used to funnel fuel, mostly diesel, to Gaza. Even when Israeli bombs managed to damage the tunnel entrances, or cause a collapse, the pipes were often undamaged and the fuel smuggling went on uninterrupted. They said they did not know anyone who smuggled weapons — only food, fuel and clothing.
There was a time, more than a year ago, when smuggling was extremely lucrative, people here said. One bag of clothing could bring $200. But when the borders were closed after Hamas took control, the number of tunnels exploded from about 30 to between 200 and 300, according to residents here. With that, prices dropped, and that same bag of clothing came down to $80.
With the recent conflict, prices have risen again, because many tunnels are inoperable and because of the increased risk of getting caught or injured. Driving through Rafah at night, a friend of the smugglers, Ahmed, pointed to a convoy of white pickup trucks, all loaded with cans of fuel. “They are for the tunnels,” he said, “all headed to Gaza.”
How Ahmed — whose identity also is being hidden to protect him from arrest — could know that the trucks were smuggling fuel when security officials did not was not immediately clear. Ahmed introduced another friend, a smuggler, whose towering new home rose from the desert near Rafah, a mansion by local standards, and an absolute advertisement for his line of work.
On Thursday, the Obama administration’s new Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, said that opening Gaza to commercial goods would help stamp out smuggling, of arms as well as goods. But Ahmed and his friends said that the authorities were reluctant to take measures to end the smuggling, of commodities at least.
How else, they asked, is anyone here going to make a decent living?
From the rooftop, Mr. Sha’er pointed to where Israeli planes bombed Gaza early Wednesday morning, flattening buildings, churning up huge mounds of sand. A few hours after the bombs fell, the people of Gaza were back at it, he said, trying to restore the tunnel openings. In Rafah many people said they were waiting for the call telling them their tunnel was working again and it was time to make another delivery.
Friday, January 30, 2009
Fascinating NYT article on Gaza-Rafah smuggling
Michael Slackman's piece in today's NYT, on the "underground economy" between Gaza and the town of Rafah in Egypt, is both fascinating and very instructive as to how the process works, and how embedded and important it is for the local economy.
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