Risky Gazans Begin Digging Out Smuggling Tunnels To Egypt Again During their heyday, you could deliver fried chicken from Egypt to Gaza through tunnels. Despite new dangers of an Egyptian anti-tunnel campaign, some Gazans are digging out a living again.
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Risky Gazans Begin Digging Out Smuggling Tunnels To Egypt Again

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Risky Gazans Begin Digging Out Smuggling Tunnels To Egypt Again

Risky Gazans Begin Digging Out Smuggling Tunnels To Egypt Again

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's no KFC in the Gaza Strip, but two years ago, Gazans could get fast food and just about anything else delivered from Egypt. It would come through smuggling tunnels dug under the Gaza-Egyptian border. Over the past year, an aggressive Egyptian military campaign has shut down most of these tunnels. And facing soaring unemployment, some Gazans are taking the risk of trying to dig-out a living again. NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: This street in Rafah, the town on Gaza's southern edge, looks like many others in the Gaza Strip - garbage and rubble in the gutter, cheap goods displayed outside the shops. But this street dead-ends into the off-limits area where smuggling tunnels come in from Egypt. At dusk, I meet a tunnel owner. He calls himself just Abu Muhammad because he wants to keep his business hidden. He takes us to his home to explain the tunnel business now. Compared to the heyday, he says, it's all much smaller-scale.

ABU MUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) We used to bring cows through the tunnels, even cars. Now we're like birds hunting crumbs. Egyptians don't drop off truckloads of goods at the entrances on the other side anymore, but just individuals carrying things, taking a risk for a hundred bucks.

HARRIS: Abu Muhammad has a thin face, 10 children and dirt in his neatly-trimmed nails. After no work for most of last year, he and his partners started smuggling again. But over the past two months he says he's gotten in just one shipment from Egypt - raw materials used to make three tons of laundry detergent to sell in Gaza. On the Egyptian side, Egypt's army has bulldozed tunnel openings and razed houses that used to hide them close to the border, so the tunnels have to be much longer and their outlets small and secret, says Abu Muhammad.

ABU MUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) There aren't any tunnel openings in the homes in Egypt anymore. Now the openings are outside under a tree or by a pile of rubble. It's scary now. Egyptian soldiers have killed many people on that side.

HARRIS: Gazan diggers know other dangers. Three brothers of the Abu Kareem family excavate tunnels and move goods underground. They say one of them was inside a tunnel when Egyptian troops pumped sewage down. Another lost part of two fingers in December when his hand got twisted in a moving cable. The third, Yusef Abu Kareem, recently carried out of a tunnel a co-worker who had died.

YUSEF ABU KAREEM: (Through interpreter) We were finished, trying to leave. There were electric cables at the top of the tunnel, but the wire was not covered well. He just hit the wire and died.

HARRIS: All three brothers are slim, strong and chain smokers. One smokes a pack he says came in from Egypt. Because so few goods are moving through the tunnels now, their wages are low. But Yusef Abu Kareem says, at least it's a job.

ABU KAREEM: (Through interpreter) We do this for the money. Nothing in Gaza is working, but you still have to feed your family.

HARRIS: The World Bank says closing the smuggling tunnels contributed to the 15 percent drop in Gaza's GDP last year. The closures also hurt Gaza's government budget because Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, actually collects import duties on goods smuggled from Egypt. Now Hamas is looking for other sources of income to combat a financial crisis, like raising taxes, says Gazan economist Omar Shaban.

OMAR SHABAN: ...Depending only or mainly on the tax collection.

HARRIS: He says depending on tax collection is not enough, so that's why Gaza has a financial crisis. In Israel, the top Gaza tunnel worry is not commercial passages to Egypt, but underground networks that go from Gaza near or into Israel. Hamas used to launch attacks during last summer's war and is still digging them. Still, Israel supported Egypt's crackdown on the smuggling tunnels, saying it curtailed the free movement of militants and weapons, not just cows, cars or fried chicken. Emily Harris, NPR News, Rafah, the Gaza Strip.

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