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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The media meme of the heroic tunnel smugglers

For years, the Western media has been enamored with Gaza's tunnel industry. Reporters were keen to be lowered into the tunnels, lionizing the industry to sometimes outrageous degrees. 

The articles barely mentioned the fact that Hamas smuggled weapons as well through the tunnels. Even when Egypt would confiscate large caches of weapons in Rafah meant to be shot at Israelis, or when Hamas themselves bragged about the amount of weaponry and explosives they managed to bring through the tunnels, the mainstream media steadfastly downplayed that aspect of the industry and instead romanticized it.

The media also loved to characterize the smugglers as heroes of Arab capitalism, and ignored the fact that Hamas had de facto control over the tunnels and taxed them for its revenue - revenue that went towards more weapons, as Gaza's infrastructure was being paid for by clueless Westerners.

It looks like the love affair between the media and the smugglers is not over yet.

Now that Gaza is awash in consumer goods from Israel (that the media tried to downplay as well,) the new stories are about how horrible this development is - to the smugglers.

One very telling example comes from The Atlantic:

[A]t the Egyptian border, in the heart of Gaza's tunnel industry, there's little if any rejoicing at the blockade's dismantlement. As Israeli consumer goods saturate Gaza's markets, the tunnels have lost their clientele. Smugglers understand that their days are numbered, but there's nothing to replace the jobs the industry provided.

"Work has run dry. Every day is getting worse and worse. It's the end of the tunnel period," says Abu Mohammad, a tunnel owner who has made millions from the industry. "It's not just me suffering. It's everyone in this business. ... No one knows what will happen to us."

The resilient industry survived Israeli bombings, Egyptian gassing, and flooding. Days after the end of Israel's 22-day offensive in January 2009, activity in the tunnel zone was frenzied--generators hummed, pulleys screeched and loading trucks banged. Most recently, smugglers drilled through the steel subterranean wall Egypt began to construct last December.

Today, though, the tunnel district is eerily silent. Market traders have either bought Israeli or stalled orders in anticipation of new goods from the Jewish state. An estimated 10 percent of the tunnels are still operating, but even those work sporadically.

Most tunnels are concentrated about half a mile from the Egyptian border, in an area five miles long and less than two miles wide. They open up in neat rows, shaded by white and black plastic tents.

Abu Saber's tunnel is at the front line, closest to the Egyptian border. Rolls of smuggled iron sheet are stacked neatly at the passageway's entrance. The haul is Saber's first shipment in 10 days.

The sandy floor of his tunnel slopes downward, easing into the ground. Buttressed inside by iron walls, the tunnel is about five feet wide and high enough to walk only slightly hunched. Inside, it's muggy and dank, pungent with the smell of earth and human sweat.

Before the blockade was eased, Saber's tunnel, like many others, operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and employed 10-12 people for each 12-hour shift, carting everything from chocolate to refrigerators. Now, Saber says, he's barely making enough hauling iron, steel, and ceramics--products that remain embargoed. And even profits on those have dropped dramatically.

"Before one ton of iron sold for $400 [U.S.], now it goes for between $150 and $200. These prices are not good enough for labor and expenses," Abu Saber laments.
How many ways can a single article make smugglers sound heroic? Gaza's economy has improved dramatically in a few short weeks, people who hate Israel are happily buying Israeli items - and the Atlantic spends 12 paragraphs talking about how the media's heroes are coping at the loss of their illicit businesses.

This is just a further example of how much the mainstream media is at the mercy of memes. Once a narrative is established, reporters act like sheep in following and expanding it - but rarely challenging it. This is why the stories out of Gaza all the same - poor Palestinian Arabs, heroic smugglers of consumer goods, Israel blockading essential goods, a looming humanitarian crisis.

Almost invisible are the stories about the upper and middle class Gazans, going to spas and even building mansions, eating out and working out and playing. Even rarer are the stories of Hamas' intimidation of ordinary Gazans, increasing religious legislation in the sector, tortures and killings.

The journalists are happy to follow but loathe to challenge. Hamas may be threatening and intimidating them but it doesn't take much to make journalists toe the line.

If you don't believe me, just try to find an article by a journalist that tried to find any weapons smuggling tunnels in Gaza. You won't. Grad missiles and anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons just magically appear in Gaza - but from reading the media you just couldn't figure out how.