They are threatened with drowning by the Egyptians
and punitively taxed by Hamas. Our correspondent meets the Palestinian
smugglers bringing oranges, car batteries and bottle tops to a
territory under siege
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
A Palestinian leads a calf through a smuggler’s tunnel from Egypt into the southern Gaza Strip at the Rafah Refugee Camp
But right now, Abdul-Halim
al-Mohsen is worried about the Egyptians. He sits by the spitting log
fire near the shaft of his tunnel, turning his hands to the flames,
breathing in the thick blue smoke, a vast white tent above him casting
his fellow-tunnellers into Rembrandt-like shadow, half-faces, thick
pullovers, bright flames amid the gloom, the generator purring in the
"Of course I’m afraid of the Egyptian
wall," al-Mohsen says. "They will pour water down. How can we defeat
this? We may drown." He holds out the palms of his hands towards me in
that familiar "what-can-we-do?" gesture of so many Palestinians – but
he is speaking in a matter-of-fact voice. The tunnels beneath the
Gaza-Egyptian frontier are a business, a professional’s game, Israel’s
bombs a challenge rather than a problem. There’s even a four-truck
miniature railway down one of the shafts. Money makes the wheels go
True to their treaties with Israel and the Quartet
(of Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara fame), the Egyptians announced last
month that they will build a wall – walls being the currency of the
Middle East these days, from Kabul and Baghdad to the West Bank –
between the southern-most rubble of the Palestinian Gaza Strip and
Egypt, in order to break through and close down the "terrorist"
tunnels. Foreign NGOs in Gaza dismiss this as the usual Egyptian
window-dressing to please the Israelis – which means to please the
Americans – adding that the Egyptian wall will only descend 18 feet
beneath the ground, falling far short of the tunnels’ depth. Perhaps it
is in the tunnellers’ interest to be more pessimistic. Al-Mohsen seems
genuinely troubled by the Egyptian initiative.
they flood our tunnel, our dangers increase," he says. "It takes an
hour to get out of the tunnel if we are stooping or on our hands and
knees. When the Israelis are bombing, we clamber through to the
Egyptian end – the Israelis won’t bomb the Egyptian side – but if the
Egyptians stop us, we will be caught by the bombing if the tunnel
I wonder about this, especially
when Abu Wadieh invites us to look at the cavernous vault which opens
in the far corner of the tent. This is no dirt hole in the ground but a
solidly built stone-and-brick vertical tunnel, almost 15 feet in width
and 90 feet deep – so deep that I can scarcely see the tiny arms of the
men far below me as they heap bags of fruit on to a big steel hook –
and more than half a mile long. A hawser whisks the bags to the surface
as the generator whines and the men at the rim of the tunnel give them
a gentle push so that they swing back into their arms. These men know
their job. All profess to be uninterested in politics, of course. No
weapons pass through their tunnel. Oh no, indeed.
truck has backed into the tent, a squad of men piling fruit and
vegetables and furniture and bottles of Egyptian Coca-Cola on to the
lorry. I ask al-Mohsen – he swears he will be a construction engineer
if peace (a muffled gasp here) looms – for his inspiration. He’s seen
pictures of tunnels before and he saw a film long ago in which foreign
prisoners – British – escaped from a German camp through a tunnel. Of
course. The Great Escape! Richard Attenborough and James Garner and
Steve McQueen and the truck on railway lines which ferries them out of
their Stalag. It accounts for the professional quality of the tunnel –
even for the underground railway line. Though I don’t choose to remind
al-Mohsen of what happened to Attenborough.
this is no laughing business. NGOs estimate that Hamas skims 15 per
cent of the profits off the tunnellers’ turnover, giving that august
institution – excoriated by Israel, the US and Europe ever since they
had the temerity to win the 2006 Palestinian elections – a quiet $350m
(£225m) income per annum.
So while the world
blockades Gaza and condemns the 1.5 million souls here to penury and –
in some cases – near-starvation, Hamas supplies itself with all the
concrete, building materials, iron and weapons that its plentiful
supplies of money can buy.
While the EU
gutlessly allows Israel to deprive Palestinian civilians of cement to
rebuild their homes after last year’s bloodbath in Gaza – because Hamas
might use the cement to build bunkers – Hamas itself has more than
enough cement to build a city of bunkers or a fleet of mosques, not to
mention the buildings it has erected opposite Israeli troops at Erez.
other words, the tunnels keep Hamas in pocket and Gaza alive. The
Palestinian poor, of course, have to be fed by the United Nations. The
tunnels thus represent not just a series of blood vessels between Gaza
and Egypt, but a massive international hypocrisy.
Wadieh, who employs 35 men working in and above al-Mohsen’s tunnel,
stands beside the crackling fire, a kuffiah wound round his head like a
builder’s helmet, rubbing his hands in the cold wind that pours into
the tent as the latest truck carries its riches off to Gaza City.
"I’m afraid the men will all leave if there’s another war," he says. "But they are experts. They know what to do."
100 metres away, the yellow shaft of an Egyptian drilling machine
stands against the horizon and the very beginning of a grey wall.
Behind it, an Egyptian flag snaps above a watchtower where the soldiers
of Arab Egypt ensure that their Arab Palestinian brothers stay besieged
in the rubbish pit of Gaza.