The tunnels are up and running...
A first-hand report from the tunnels of Gaza...
Mahmoud laters explains that the tunnel industry is not only profitable, but regulated. Aspiring proprietors must apply for a tunnel license at the Rafah Municipal Council. Tunnel permits are issued for $6,000, which can be paid in instalments, and an additional fee of $2,500 for electricity. Despite past attempts to close the tunnels by flooding or gassing them from the Egyptian side, smugglers are not deterred.
Mahmoud smiles when I ask if Hamas has made any efforts to close the tunnels. "No, of course. Everybody in the whole world knows that Hamas is supporting the tunnels," he answers, exasperated. Upon further contemplation, he tells me Hamas has closed tunnels in the past, but only those smuggling cocaine. "Egyptians support the tunnels too," he adds. "They facilitate the entry of goods from Cairo to Sinai."
Outside Jamil's tent, we are stopped almost immediately by a group of young men intent upon showing us another tunnel. "Come, come!" They lead us to a group of men digging a new hole--an alternative opening for a tunnel whose original entrance has caved in with sand. The new entry shaft is only 10 feet away from the last. Digging anew, the workers are hoping to strike the same tunnel to salvage it. A drum full of light bulbs--presumably the last haul before the collapse--stands next to the half-completed new hole, basking in the sunlight. Rumors of incoming foreign aid trucks waiting to cross the border have caused anxiety among the workers--quickening their already frantic activities. We walk to the old opening and examine the damage while a man gleefully chronicles all the items regularly coming through the tunnel.
"Chipsy [a popular Egyptian potato chip brand], biscuits, Glaxy chocolate bars," he lists on his fingers. "No weapon! No weapon!" he repeats adamantly. A boy in his late teens climbs down into the crater to be photographed. Posing for the camera, his hand is raised in the "V" for victory symbol.
Suddenly, a group of angry men converge upon us, pointing at my camera, and Mahmoud suggests we leave. Driving back into Rafah, he points out the remains of bombed buildings, differentiating between which had been struck in this war and which were remnants of past attempts to thwart the smuggling. "This building had one tunnel ... that building had one ... and that," he says, punctuating our journey back to Rafah.
Back at Mahmoud's house, which he shares with over 20 members of his family, we sit on the floor of his living room sipping tea next to two heavily wired computers, which make up the base of his telecommunications company. "We could have a tunnel here," he says, pointing to the empty space in the middle of the room. "It would be very profitable!" he chuckles.
"Why not?" I ask.
"Oh, too far from the border," he says.