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Gaza’s illegal tunnels - a dangerous but vital lifeline

Queues are long in places people think there might be fuel.
(Wissam Nassar/IRIN)

Underground explosions have become a real threat to life in the Gaza Strip, as smugglers bring basic goods, such as fuel, through illegal underground tunnels from Egypt into the blockaded enclave.

Some 39 people have been killed this year in tunnel-related accidents, the al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza said on 12 October. The latest two casualties died a couple of days ago when gas canisters they were carrying exploded inside the tunnel near the Egyptian border.

The rights group blamed the deteriorating economic situation for the number of youngsters risking their lives to make a living as a tunnel smuggler.

“Deteriorating standards of living and unprecedented levels of unemployment and poverty are leading many young people to risk their lives for the sake of making a living,” the group said in a statement.

Some aid workers estimated unemployment in Gaza was running at 45 percent, and said official estimates can hardly keep up with the daily rises in the number of jobless people.

The recent accidents have been attributed to an increase in tunnel usage, which increases the risk of fatal incidents and means less attention is paid to safety. Egypt has also been trying to shut down the tunnels, forcing the smugglers to take yet more risks.

Most people do not want to speak on the record about tunnels as they are officially illegal.

However, it is clear that Hamas makes money out of the tunnels, taxing the goods that come through.

Closure of the tunnels would certainly hurt Hamas’s ability to rule in the Strip: Besides the cash, it needs them to bring in goods, including weapons, the movement requires.

Humanitarian impact?

Aid workers say closure would also have a humanitarian impact. Some aid agencies said the goods they have bought in Gaza and then distributed to beneficiaries came via tunnels from Egypt, noting they had no choice as no other items were available.

Many goods in Gaza are only available from Egypt, as Israel maintains a tight blockade on the enclave, allowing in only a limited quantity of goods which it deems satisfy humanitarian needs.

For example, petrol stations in Gaza are selling Egyptian fuel, brought in underground, due to the tight limits on certain types of fuel allowed in. The same goes for shoes and household items.

"The tunnels are becoming more important," a local resident said. Some estimates say business conducted through tunnels makes up over a third of Gaza’s overall economic activity.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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