Thursday, January 29, 2009

'Draculas' get their teeth back into lucrative Gaza tunnel operation

-Taken from 'The Scotsman'
-Rafah, Gaza - January 2009

They call them the ‘Draculas’ – rich, ruthless men who have carved a fortune out of the dark earth beneath the Egyptian-Gazan border. This particular class of Palestinian tunnel-owner has never been popular with locals; now, as the dust settles on Israel’s three-week bombardment of the Gaza Strip, the Draculas are back in business and fuelling a new wave of tension at the heart of Palestinian society.

This time last week the Hai Qishta neighbourhood of Rafah was a ghost town, throbbing day and night with ‘bunker-buster’ explosives dropped from Israeli war planes. Now a different group of noises fill the air; the shouts, banging and clanging of a small army of workers busy repairing the vast network of tunnel entrances dotted around this sandy patch of land, which lies less than 200m away from the edge of Egypt. Some are shovelling away under large white canvas tents; most don’t even bother with this most basic attempt at discretion. “Nearly everyone is rebuilding now, this time with stronger stone entrance shafts,” says Mahmoud, a 24 year old tunnel manager. “It may take a month or two for us to be operating at full capacity again, but we’ll get there.”

The tunnels have performed many functions, often contradictory, for the people of Gaza in the past: subterranean lifelines during the Israeli-imposed siege on their land; magnets for destruction in the heat of war; stark enforcers of inequality and exploitation throughout. And as Rafah’s biggest industry grinds slowly back into action, it is this latter role which is causing consternation amongst communities affected by the smuggling trade.

Mohammed Qishta’s relatives have lived in this area for so long that it has taken on the family name. Mohammed, 60, saw his house in the neighbourhood levelled by Israeli bulldozers four years ago; ever since then he has been regularly approached by businessmen looking to lease his land for tunnel-building. “They usually offer around $1000 up front, then a ten to twenty percent cut of all future profits,” he told The Scotsman. “For people round here that’s a huge amount of money.”

Many of his neighbours have been persuaded by the promise of riches; sources suggest that there are between 500 and 700 tunnels along the border with Egypt, along with hundreds more small tubes pumping illicit petrol into the strip. For Mohammed though, the answer he gives to the smugglers is the same every time. “I tell them no, and no and no again,” he said forcefully. “Who are these tunnels for? They exist for the rich alone; 98% of Gazans will never benefit from this work.”

Crippling Rafah’s tunnel complex was a key objective of ‘Operation Cast Lead’, Israel’s 22 day offensive on the Gaza Strip. Israeli politicians painted the tunnels as a criminal conduit for weapons and drugs; international defenders of the smugglers argued that by providing a passage for essential food and medicines, the tunnels helped Palestinians survive the growing humanitarian crisis caused by Israel’s blockade on Gaza, launched in June 2007 in response to the takeover of the Strip by Hamas. Within Gaza, however, responses to the tunnels are more subtle. Mohammed’s cynicism over the charitable goals of the smugglers is shared by many near the border, not just due to some tunnels processing haram (forbidden) goods like arms and alcohol, but also because they are seen as personal supply lines for the privileged.

Mahmoud, who built his tunnel with a group of friends over a year ago, is scathing about the ‘Draculas’. “There are two distinct groups of tunnel operators in Rafah,” he explained. “Our tunnel is about breaking the siege. We always saw it as a moral act, never as a money-making opportunity. But there are those who looked on the siege as an opportunity to make a profit out of misery.” According to Mahmoud and other tunnel operators, the two groups rarely mix. “Most of the tunnels that are designed to make money are owned by people living over in Gaza City,” he said. “They aren’t so connected to local communities, and they don’t see what they are doing as political. There’s a lot of tension between us and them. If medicines are needed by a family we will bring them through for free, or only cover our costs. But for the business tunnels, no money means no goods, however much those goods might be needed.”

It’s a claim borne out by the experience of Nesrine, an English teacher who lives in Rafah. When she needed creams to treat a skin condition last summer she turned to the tunnel operators, who are taxed on their activities by the Hamas authorities. “The Draculas completely ignored me because I couldn’t pay much,” she recalls. “But the humanitarian tunnel operators brought the stuff straight over and said it would be an insult to accept any money from me.”

Despite having benefitted from it in the past, Nesrine remains a stern critic of the entire smuggling infrastructure. In part her opposition to the tunnels is political; for all of its catastrophic effects on Gaza, the siege has been a great social leveller, bringing poverty and hardship to the elite and the masses alike. “The tunnels changed all that,” Nesrine argues. “They basically stopped Palestinians standing together as one and saying to the world ‘Look, look at what Israel has done to us’. Instead they allowed those with money to reassert themselves at the top of the pile by obtaining their luxuries, whilst the rest of us still had to make do with dwindling supplies and soaring prices.”

Nesrine’s other problem with the tunnels is the dangers involved in building them. Khalil, a 27 year old driver from Rafah, spent six months working on a tunnel construction site last year when the Israeli blockade left his taxi empty of fuel. “Everything just hits you down there, the dust, the heat, the darkness when the lights go out,” he remembers. Khalil spent eight hours a day for half a year shovelling soil for one of the ‘Draculas’, at the end of which he was paid $2,500. In that time he witnessed several colleagues being killed, some through tunnel collapses, others from suffocation when Egyptian border guards pumped gas through the other end. “The owners used to fight all the time with the local residents who don’t want to see their houses brought into danger by having a tunnel nearby. But these men just exploit everybody. The regularly cheat the workers, who go down and see their deaths for 40 shekels a day.”

Rebuilding their shattered land after the Israeli assault, most Palestinians grudgingly accept the tunnels and the ‘Draculas’ as an inevitable feature of the landscape as long as Gaza’s border crossings remain sealed. “Everything in life has its advantages and disadvantages,” reflected Mohammed Qishta’s son, Abed. “It’s the Israelis who made us need the tunnels, and that’s the real tragedy, that they’ve created this situation where people can capitalise on disaster.” For Nesrine though, the issue is simpler. “If I was President of Palestine I would shut them all tomorrow,” she insisted. “Only then would people see the reality of what the siege has really done to our people.”

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