The youngest in the group is usually called Ahmed or Muhammad, and he must be short, skinny, and quick. Two people stand above him: One of them is the driver that will be transporting the bags, and the other is the “boss” - just like in the mafia. On a good day, the “boss” makes about a thousand dollars. On a bad day, Ahmad or Muhammad could end up dead, should one of Gaza’s tunnels collapse.
Forty seven Palestinians, half of them children, died this year while working underground.
On a good day, Ahmed or Muhammad will finish their shift with 50 shekels (roughly $15) - enough to feed an extended family. At least 20 people depend on the dangerous labor of a 10-year-old and a 14-year-old who every morning embark on their studies in the school of life.
Rub your eyes in disbelief in the face of the economic boom taking place in tunnel city: Stock markets are crashing and
the world is facing a crisis, yet in Gaza 500 supermarkets flourish. A mega-store underground. Each tunnel has a manager, smuggler, diggers who travel from one site to another, merchants, intermediaries, a driver, and customers who provide a shopping list. If you ask for something today, you’ll get it two days from now.
They dig at night and pull out the merchandize during the day. Hamas charges a $200-dollar fee per bag. They smuggle very few weapons (no need, they have too much as it is.) Drugs and alcohol are also rarely smuggled, for fear of Hamas’ watchful eye. They do smuggle plenty of computers and cellular phones, jeans, sneakers, cement, furniture, medicine, food, and mostly chocolate.
The record took place two weeks ago: An Egyptian bride who got sick and tired of waiting at the Rafah border crossing passed through one of the tunnels. The “boss” was generous and only demanded $150 for the “goods.” Meanwhile, Hamas forfeited the tunnel tax that was supposed to be paid by the groom’s family and rushed to inform the media about it.
Overnight, Gaza’s tunnels were connected to the local electricity grid. Welcome to the ungrounded Palestinian mall system. If you walk into the living room, you will see a smuggler carrying a pile of laptops. If you visit the Egyptian Rafah,
you will see a bag containing jeans and canned goods behind lowered into the backyard. Yesterday, a new glasses boutique was opened. Prada and Gucci frames arrived all the way from the Dubai, and prices are sky-high.
Now, top Hamas leaders
in Gaza are formulating new rules for this game. Boys below 18 years of age must not be used for digging tunnels. Those who are caught violating this regulation will be fined. Moreover, smugglers must not be employed more than 10 consecutive hours. Minimum wage will be introduced. Should a tunnel collapse, the tunnel manager will pay compensation to the victim’s family. The exact sum is open for bargaining between attorneys and tunnel managers.
The new ethical code is in Jordanian dinars, but trade underground is conducted in Israeli shekels. Israeli bills are even accepted in Egyptian Rafah. To be honest, everyone is satisfied. In Israel, we got rid of the bothersome talk about hunger in the Strip, while the Hamas leadership knows what to do with its cut of the “tunnel tax.”
Merchants on the Egyptian side, smugglers on the Palestinian side, and everyone associated with this industry are making the kind of living they could not imagine in their wildest dreams.
Another year of such siege, and we’ll see