Next we visited the border areas of Rafah. It is absolutely impossible to imagine or believe what is going on there without seeing it. Foremost is the massive scale of the destruction of residential housing by the Israelis. By 2004, more than 4,000 homes were demolished by Israel to create a corridor between the Egyptian city of Rafah and the Gazan city of Rafah. Faten showed us where her home had been before it was destroyed in 2004.. She said this was the first time she had returned --- it was too painful for her to see the rubble. If you stop to think about it, the destruction of 4,000 homes (Palestinians have large multistory dwellings for their extended family) is equivalent, I think, to the destruction of perhaps two hundred city blocks in New York City. As you walk by the rubble, you can still see half buried possessions, people living in ruined homes with their facings ripped off, children fearlessly playing everywhere in the rubble. The destruction did not end in 2004. As Israel has continued almost daily bombing of the tunnels, it has also bombed more homes at the border,
We stopped to talk to one man who said, “The war is not over. We are waiting for World War III.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant. It certainly was not that he was expecting Palestinians to attack. He was expecting and waiting for some apocalyptic event.
The other sight that has to be seen to be believed is the tunnels. These tunnels are not secret. They are not hidden. The openings are right in the open – perhaps covered by a tent or a shed. And they are not scattered here and there. The border is simply one tunnel next to the other. Fuel trucks rumble up and down the dirt road that runs by the tunnels, picking up smuggled gasoline to take to gas stations. (Gasoline, other than for the main power plant in Gaza, has not been permitted across the legal border since November).
You have to stop to ask yourself, “What is going on here? Why is Israel bombing tunnels in a desultory fashion (two or three a day), when they can easily see them and could eliminate them with carpet bombing? If they really believe the tunnels are smuggling weapons into Gaza, wouldn’t they eliminate them?”
Something else is going on here. First, the tunnels are Gaza’s lifeline. Without them the entire place would grind to a halt - -no cars, no cooking gas, no cement, no paper, etc., etc. because all these items and many more are banned by Israel from crossing legally. In fact, only 40 items on a constantly changing list are permitted.
Second, Israel would like to force Egypt to take full responsibility for Gaza. So they prefer that Gaza’s needs be supplied from Egypt, not through the Israeli crossings. Meanwhile, Egypt is already flooded with refugees from Darfur, from Somalia, from Eritrea, from Iraq, etc. etc. The prospect of adding another 1.5 Palestinians to the mix is not appealing.
The tunnel economy is undermining Gaza’s civil institutions. The 80% of the population that is unemployed and dependent on UNRWA relief coupons cannot buy at the highly inflated prices of smuggled goods. The tunnel owners are becoming a new Mafia with shiny motorbikes, etc. It would be hard for them to quit smuggling and take low wage jobs if the borders were opened and the tunnels were no longer needed. What activity will they turn to to maintain their lifestyle? The tunnel economy is also robbing Gaza of its educated youth. It is estimated that 20,000 students are working in the tunnels to support themselves while in school. Hamas taxes the tunnel traffic, earning revenue. Will they be able to replace it? Finally, a report in The Guardian indicates that the tunnel economy has spawned shady investment scams, bankrupting desperate people seeking to invest in any money making scheme. That is probably the ultimate proof of the tunnel economy's destruction of the real economy.