Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The capitalist Gaza tunnel subculture

Although this long article has the usual British fawning over Palestinian Arab terrorists, it is an excellent piece of investigative journalism that reveals the real motivation for tunnel-building between Gaza and rafah: pure profit, and lots of it.

It is ironic that these are the high-minded ideals that Rachel Corrie "martyred" herself for - so that some Arabs can make hundreds of thousands of dollars off of other Arabs.


But a chance conversation resulted in my living in Rafah for a week with the "tunnel people". It was like discovering a lost tribe in a city I had been visiting for 15 years. I found an extraordinary, secret tunnel culture known only to a few Palestinians. The tunnel people told me they originally smuggled in contraband drugs, women, cigarettes (5 shekels in Egypt, 12 shekels in Gaza), and even the python that still slithers around in the Rafah zoo, and the ostrich that escaped during the May 2004 Israeli incursion, to the great glee of Rafah kids, who rode bareback on the big bird until the zookeepers recaptured him. Since the second intifada began five years ago, however, the tunnellers have mostly smuggled weapons.

The profits are huge. A Kalashnikov sells for $200 on the Egyptian side, but fetches $2,000 on the Gaza black market. A good night's delivery is 1,200 Kalashnikovs — a profit of more than $2m. Bullets — 50 cents in Egypt, $8 wholesale in Gaza — are even more profitable. A standard one-night delivery returns a profit of $750,000. The tunnels are financed by wealthy families — locals call them the "snakeheads" — who run the tunnels as businesses. They rent the passage to anyone who pays $10,000 for one night's use — a gun dealer, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the militant Islamic fundamentalist groups, or a man who can't get his wife legally into Gaza. Cash is the currency, not politics, patriotism or sentimentality.

They rent, build or buy a house, even an entire farm, just to disguise a tunnel's "eye", as they call the entrance. The gun dealers are their biggest clients. "We call them blood dealers," said Abu Sibah, 36, the bearded head of a rogue Palestinian militia in Al-Bureij refugee camp north of Rafah, outside a car mechanics' shop where he had stored his latest shipment of Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). "But there is nothing to do about them. We depend on the tunnels for guns." He was particularly proud of the shiny black Belgian revolver in his belt — at $3,000, a special order. It was to this world that Nadr Keshta turned for the money to marry.

His relatives were in the tunnel business and he heard a "big project" was about to start. He signed on with a group of eight young men, all relatives. In the tunnels there is a hierarchy: those not related to the patron work for $100 a day as diggers, while those who are relatives get a share of the profit in return for their labour, a much better deal. When the tunnel is finished they are entitled to a percentage on every load that passes through it.