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With the smuggling tunnels destroyed, Gazans struggle to make ends meet

In July 2013, the Egyptian military destroyed most of the underground passages that brought fuel and raw materials to Gaza. Now, industrial and construction workers are unemployed, and fishermen can’t fish.

GAZA — When the Egyptian Army began shutting down the smuggling tunnels from Egypt to Gaza this past summer, Abdul Hadi Ahmed lost his job.

More precisely, his construction company promptly folded. They no longer had construction materials with which to build.

Since 2007, when the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of Gaza and Israel imposed a blockade on the territory, Gaza’s 1.8 million residents have secured nearly 70 percent of their commercial needs — including raw construction materials and cheap fuel, but also candies and new cars — through hundreds of smuggling tunnels. In 2010 over 2,000 tunnels were thought to be in operation in the so-called Philadelphi Corridor.

But political turmoil in Egypt has shut off the flow of contraband. Following the removal of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi in July, the Egyptian military began destroying the tunnels, which it believes are being used by Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, to aid Islamist militants in the Sinai. United Nations Middle East peace envoy Robert Serry estimated after the coup last summer that roughly 80 percent of the tunnels were “no longer functioning.”

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Selling fresh mint at Gaza’s old market is now the only job available for Abdul Hadi Ahmed, one of many in Gaza hit hard by the tunnel closures.

Ahmed was fortunate. He had built a small house and bought a small piece of land from the money he saved while working in Israel, before the Jewish state banned the entry of Gaza workers into its territory in 2007. 

“This does not bring much money, but it’s better than nothing,” Ahmed said as he cut mint leaves in his small garden.

Still, his earnings are nowhere near what they were before the tunnel closures. Ahmed, a father of seven, used to make 2000 Israeli Shekels (around $600) per month. Now he makes around $5 a day, or roughly $150 per month. 

“I might be able to bring food to my children and have a safe roof over their heads, but I definitely cannot send them to school and buy them medicine when they fall ill,” he said.

Ahmed isn’t the only Gaza resident in trouble. The Hamas Economy Ministry announced in December 2013 that around 300,000 Palestinians have lost their jobs due to the ongoing Israeli blockade and Egypt’s recent crackdown on the smuggling tunnels.

The tunnel closures have even crippled the Hamas government, which used to get around half of its budget from taxing the traffic through the tunnels. The government now is struggling to pay its 50,000 employees. Hatem Oweda, the deputy economy minister, said the closure of tunnels reduced GDP growth by 3 percent.

“The closure of tunnels has paralyzed the economy in Gaza. Hundreds of factories and companies have closed and thousands of people became jobless,” said Gaza-based economist Maher Tabaa.

Without raw materials and fuel, business in Gaza has ground to a halt. The Strip gets only 37 percent of the fuel required to meet its daily needs, brought in through Israel — Gaza’s only power plant shut down temporarily after running out of cheap Egyptian fuel. 

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Sami Amassi, head of Gaza’s laborers’ union, said the closure of tunnels and the Israeli ban on construction materials have led to the closure of 438 factories that produce building materials like tiles, concrete blocks and paint.

A whopping 90 percent of Gaza’s 4000 fishermen cannot work because of the severe shortage of fuel, Amassi said, and 40,000 farmers in Gaza collectively suffer $150,000 in daily losses as a result of bans on exports and imports, especially of fertilizers and agricultural equipment.

“Unemployment rates may go beyond 40 percent in a few months. You simply cannot build an economy under such circumstances. If things continue like this, Gaza economy will go back to zero point,” Tabaa, the economist, said.

Ahmed’s mint plants require neither fuel nor fertilizers. In the current economic climate, that makes him one of the lucky ones.