Inventive Gazan prisoners in the Strip undermine the siege by Israel


Gaza is showing some signs of recovery, helped by a thriving tunnel-based economy, Michael Jansenfinds

THE SITUATION in Gaza has been transformed since May when last I visited the Strip. Hamas has consolidated its grip on governance. The movement has eliminated Fatah elements who tried to challenge its rule and taken over the security forces, the ministries, the courts and the municipalities, deepening its hold on power and making it all the more difficult for Egypt to broker a reconciliation deal with Fatah, which controls the West Bank. Hamas has also closed down many Fatah-affiliated and independent civil society bodies, limiting the scope of dissent and the reach of these agencies.

The truce between Israel and Hamas has given Gazans a reprieve from Israeli aerial attacks and ground raids, and boosted Hamas standing with Gazans.

Hamas has also been bolstered on the regional scene because Israel has been compelled to negotiate indirectly with the movement, using Egypt as broker.

In May, electricity was severely rationed to six hours a day. Today Gaza has full power, since Israel permits the flow of EU-bought fuel for the Gaza power station and allows an Israeli firm to make up the balance. Petrol is still in short supply, although drivers have stopped wrecking their engines with cooking oil.

More goods are available thanks to the scores of tunnels dug under the border between the Strip and Egypt. The most important imports are diesel fuel for vehicles, charcoal, cooking gas, fertiliser, medicines, and spare parts for machines and cars.

Cattle, sheep, goats, Chinese-made clothing and cigarettes are also imported underground.

Two lion cubs were brought in for a private zoo, while two sisters in Egyptian Rafah braved the tunnel journey to marry their intendeds.

The 750-odd tunnels, many of whose entrances shelter under vast tents of plastic and canvas, operate openly, providing employment for 20,000 construction workers, as well as Gazans retailing the goods they bring.

Major tunnels are at a depth of 10 to 18 metres and stretch a length of 1,000 to 1,500 metres. They cost $250,000-$500,000 (€196,000-€392,000) to dig, are shored up with planks and are provided with a simple pulley systems to lower people below and drag goods from one side to the other.

A class of tunnel millionaires has sprung up; there is no shortage of investors.

Ten tunnels have thick hose pipes to carry diesel which is collected in large plastic vats and distributed to clients who have tractor or horse-drawn carts fitted with tanks. Half a million litres of diesel flow into Gaza every day.

When I told the man at the Egyptian end of the first tunnel I visited that I write for The Irish Times, he replied, "Welcome, welcome. People of Ireland and Palestine brothers."

Under pressure from Israel and the US, the Egyptians occasionally blow up one of the tunnels or inject clouds of gas to drive out workers.

Since 45 have died in collapses in recent weeks, Hamas has called upon owners to insure the workers' lives. Hamas has also imposed taxes on cigarettes.

Although only a limited proportion of the goods needed in Gaza can be brought through the tunnels, the flow has eased acute shortages of essentials.

A Gazan physician remarked: "The tunnels are like the valve on a pressure cooker, they let off the steam building up in the society due to the siege." For this reason the tunnels also serve the interests of Israel, the international community and Hamas. But the tunnels do not ease the plight of the 1.1 million Gazans.

There was an understanding that if Hamas halted rocket fire into Israel, it would open the crossings to a free flow of imports and exports, as well as human traffic in and out of the Strip. This has not happened.

John Ging, an Irish citizen who is director of Gaza operations for the UN agency which looks after Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), said: "Israel was to welcome the export of fuel and goods to Gaza if Gazans stopped exporting rockets."

He made the point that

before there was a truce, Israel allowed goods to flow while rockets flew.

Gazans are prisoners in the Strip. Even people needing medical attention or students with places for graduate study cannot leave. The level of destitution and desperation is deepening.

"Since June 2007 [when Hamas seized power], 100,000 lost their jobs," Ging says. More people are becoming dependent on aid. UNRWA distributes rations to 700,000 and the World Food Programme to 250,000-300,000 but, Mr Ging cautioned, the ration package of lentils, flour, oil, sugar and rice only provides 60 per cent of daily nutritional needs. The ration is designed for emergencies, not permanent deprivation.

Mr Ging asserted: "Gaza is locked down, the economy is being destroyed, unemployment is almost total. The only jobs are in the UN and public service. People are in suspended animation, desperation is taking hold. We do have a civilised people here but policies are being pursued which are uncivilised. Civilisation depends on the rule of law . . . here policies are determined by political considerations . . . Palestinians have no protection. They cannot secure fundamental rights on their own so they are encouraged to resort to violence."