RAFAH, Gaza — Dusty sacks filled with cans of Coca-Cola were being loaded onto trucks by young boys, headed for supermarkets in Gaza City. Thousands of motorcycles were lined up on display in a nearby stadium, ranging in price from $2,000 to $10,000.
At Nijma market, refrigerators, flat-screen televisions, microwaves, air-conditioners, generators and ovens filled the tents, all at inflated prices, having been spirited into this town on the border with Egypt through tunnels under the sand. Some Gazans have even purchased cars smuggled in parts into the isolated Palestinian enclave.
The tunnels emerged as an essential lifeline for Gaza two years ago, when Israel imposed a political and economic embargo after Hamas took over the area. Israel did its best to obliterate them during its three-week military offensive in Gaza last winter, saying they were being used for smuggling weapons and explosives.
But the builders set to work immediately after that, and with little hope of the border crossings with Israel opening anytime soon — and rich profits to be harvested — there are more tunnels now than ever, and Rafah has turned into a shopping mecca where the tunnel owners are kings.
“If the siege were to be lifted,” said Osama, 22, a tunnel owner, “I would end up in intensive care.”
Osama would not give his family name, fearing he would never be able to travel legally out of Gaza if identified. Locally, he goes by the nickname of Doda, which means worm.
In the past, armed gangs roamed this frontier town with a lawless feel; journalists and humanitarian workers were about the only visitors to venture here. Now, customers flock in from all over Gaza.
What started as a few clandestine tunnels dug beneath houses has turned into a booming industry that nobody bothers to hide.
Before the Gaza war the tunnels numbered in the hundreds. Today about 1,500 of them are said to be crammed into an eight-mile stretch along the border, employing in the neighborhood of 30,000 Palestinians from all over the territory.
A local merchant has opened a 24-hour grocery store called “Dubai” to cater to them. Only the milk and the yogurt come from Israel. The soft drinks, beans, chocolate, cookies and cooking oil come in consignments from under the ground.
Across the street Abu Raed Alarja, 58, fixes tools that are used to dig the tunnels. Inside his dark store, he also stocks cement, generators and blue plastic barrels strung together with strong ropes, used to drag goods from the Egyptian side.
For the tunnel owners the profits are high, but precarious. Israel regularly bombards the tunnels in response to rocket fire, and some that are not well constructed collapse. Egypt also occasionally seals them from its side, a tactic it uses to keep Hamas in line.
Hamas runs some tunnels of its own, but local residents say the group does not collect taxes from those that are privately owned.
A syndicate has been formed to supervise the tunnel system and to defend the rights of workers killed on the job — at least 116 to date, according to local human rights groups. Five workers 17 to 20 years old were killed in one of Osama’s three tunnels five months ago when it collapsed because of the dryness of the sand. Osama paid the five families $2,000 each in compensation and has promised to pay an additional $7,000 each in a few months.
Osama started out as a day laborer, digging tunnels from the age of 16. He graduated to running drugs and TNT through the tunnels into Gaza. Though he is a supporter of Fatah, the secular rival of Hamas, he says he supplied both parties. He was young but intimidating enough. He says he used to eat in restaurants in Gaza City and leave without paying. “Now it is different,” he said. “We fear Hamas.”
For the same reason he no longer smuggles drugs or weapons, though the money he made from that illicit trade helped set him up in legitimate business. He says that each of his three tunnels cost about $300,000 to build, and that four friends helped him finance the enterprise.
By night he brings in live animals, motorcycles, potato chips, Coca-Cola and clothing for women and children. But the most lucrative import is fuel, which he pumps through a pipe fixed on the ceiling of a tunnel more than half a mile long and collects in a large tank on the Palestinian side. Like any smart businessman, Osama does most of his pumping after Israel has blocked fuel supplies from its side or has bombed a few competing tunnels, lifting prices in Gaza.
The tunnel owners, Gaza’s nouveau riche, say they make on average more than $1 million a year from each tunnel.
Sharif Abu Daf, 30, used to work as a contractor in Gaza City until Israel closed the commercial crossings and prevented cement and other construction materials from coming in. Now he is digging to feed his wife and his six children and making 120 shekels, about $32, a day.
The tunnel owners have brought little change to Rafah, which they consider a conservative backwater. Instead, they prefer to invest their money in property in Gaza City and beyond.
“We make millions, but we are not educated,” said Imad, 29, one of Osama’s partners. Some local men, he noted, marry more than one wife. “If I want to invest, I’ll go to Morocco. I heard it is a beautiful place. They have a normal government.”
“What’s the point of having so much money when you are not able to travel?” said Hazim, 23, another partner who started out digging tunnels. He said he wanted to go to Egypt, study business administration and then invest in Cairo.
“They have never seen beyond Gaza,” said Imad’s father-in-law, Abu Mohammed, 57, of the younger generation. “They think like they are in a tunnel,” he continued. “They have never seen malls or real supermarkets like I saw in Dubai.”