Gaza's Great Tunnel Recession

Battered by Israeli and Egyptian military strikes and undermined by the easing of the blockade on Gaza, the once-booming tunnel industry is a shadow of its former self.

RAFAH, Gaza—It's a clear sign that an industry is well established when cafes spring up to cater to the workforce. In the best of times, Café Abou el Nour relied on just this business model, supplying a place to rest and talk for the busy workers in Gaza's tunnel industry. The smuggling zone extends across both sides of the border separating Egypt and Gaza, and is split down the middle by a low Egyptian border fence outfitted with manned guard towers several hundred meters apart.

Once, there were more than a thousand tunnels on this patch of land. These days, however, squeezed by the Egyptian and Israeli governments and the easing of the Gaza blockade, the tunnels have dwindled to as few as 200, according to tunnel workers. Café Abou el Nour also sits empty, save for a 10-year-old worker snoozing in the corner, a few stray cats looking for a handout, and the establishment's preoccupied owner, Ahmed Abou el Nour. "There is no work these days," he says, "because the tunnel business has been very bad."

Khaled Baraka, a 20-year-old native of Rafah, was one of the workers who benefited during the tunnels' boom time, which began in 2007 following Hamas's armed takeover of the Gaza Strip. Neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians had cracked down on the industry yet, and the Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas seized power guaranteed that the tunnels would be Gazans' primary lifeline for basic necessities.

Hamas nurtured the tunnel industry and continues to view it as an important source of revenue. The party issues licenses for the tunnels, charging Gazans up to $6,000 for the privilege of beginning construction. It then taxes each tunnel $200 per month, according to Baraka and another tunnel worker. In return for these fees, the municipality of Rafah oversees the tunnel trade -- helping to resolve disputes between tunnel owners, imposing labor laws, and providing emergency rescue support in the event of a collapse.

When Baraka began his career in the tunnels as a digger, he was working three or four days a week and making up to $200 per day. While the volume of goods passing through the tunnels made the industry seductively lucrative to Gazans, workers lived in fear of tunnel collapses, Israeli airstrikes, and Egyptian military raids. He quickly rose to the position of tunnel manager, overseeing workers in a tunnel. In the middle of 2009, he purchased a 20 percent stake in the tunnel, paying for his portion largely in labor.

But the industry had already begun its decline. After its nearly monthlong war with Hamas concluded in January 2009, Israel managed to convince Egypt that the success of its strategy to isolate Hamas depended on Egyptian help in shutting down the Islamist party's primary source of goods and weapons. In response, Egypt ramped up its efforts: Over the last year and a half, workers say, Egypt has been responsible for far more tunnel closures than the Israeli air raids.

The visual contrast between the Egyptian side of the tunnel industry and its counterpart in Gaza attests to the firm hand Egypt keeps on the smugglers. While the Gaza side of the industry operates openly, the Egyptian tunnels operate in secrecy, opening into houses or remote fields.

According to some in Gaza, however, Egypt has shown restraint. "The Egyptians are very smart," said Ahmed Yousef, a political advisor to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. If they chose, "They could close all the tunnels tomorrow." While Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a staunch U.S. ally and adheres to a peace treaty with Israel, he also does not want to provoke anger throughout the Arab world, and at home, by entirely cutting off Gaza's economic lifeline. Protesters throughout the Arab world earlier this year railed against the Egyptian government's construction of an underground steel wall meant to thwart the smugglers, which Hamas dubbed the "wall of death."

Since then, Gaza's tunnel economy has only declined further. In the wake of the May 31 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, which left nine Turkish activists dead and created a worldwide backlash against the blockades, Israel replaced the limited list of goods that were allowed into Gaza with a small list of items that it insisted should still be excluded. As a result, many Palestinians quickly turned their backs on the tunnels, choosing to buy cheaper, higher-quality products from Israel.

In fact, though Hamas continues to support the tunnel trade and its implied defiance of Israeli policy, many Palestinians are desperate to see the industry fall into obsolescence. Tunnel goods are dramatically more expensive than Israeli products, a particularly important consideration in a territory where money is tight and the unemployment rate tops 40 percent.

Cement, one of the few items that Israel still forbids from entering Gaza, sells at more than a 100 percent markup after it passes through the tunnels. On the Egyptian side of the border, it costs nearly $100 a ton -- but then it passes through the hands of tunnel owners, wholesale merchants, and store owners, all looking to make a profit. By the time it reaches consumers in Gaza, the price has shot up to around $220 per ton.

For Gazan consumers, caught between buying goods brought to Gaza illegally and those allowed in by the Israeli enemy, quality is also an important consideration. "If the borders open for good, I will never, ever buy goods from Egypt again," said Mohamed Abou Matar, a shop owner in Rafah, as he sipped a cup of Israeli coffee. He had a particular gripe with Egyptian cigarettes, which are notoriously bad. His customers, he said, craved cigarettes from Israel.

Baraka was one of the victims of the tunnel industry's change of fortunes. The Israeli air force bombed his tunnel in January, caving in a middle portion. Baraka decided that he would not invest in repairs, effectively handing in his retirement from the industry. "I quit working in the tunnels because I lost too many friends," he said. He was also discouraged by the Egyptian government's renewed anti-tunnel efforts, fearing that Egypt would pump poison gas into his tunnel. Now, he has joined his brothers in the more modest, but far safer, business of buying and selling charcoal.

With the tunnel industry on the wane, the strip of land along the Egyptian border is far quieter than even a year and a half ago. The bustle of the area has disappeared with the stream of goods. However, there are some signs that the tunnel business is not dying, but merely in a state of suspended animation -- waiting for the political winds to produce conditions favorable for a revival.

On one recent afternoon, Ibrahim Abou Taha, 17, lounged in the shade of his tunnel's tent. Nothing had come through the tunnel for days, he said, but he liked to stay close to the entrance so as not to risk losing his job.

Asked if crackdowns by the Egyptians and the Israelis had made him worry for his safety and if he would consider abandoning the tunnel trade, as so many others had, Abou Taha shook his head. "All of us will be dead someday," he said, several minutes after the roar of an Israeli jet had faded.

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The Man Gitmo Raised

Omar Khadr's trial is a reminder of everything that went wrong with justice at Guantánamo Bay.

GUANTÁNAMO BAY -- When I first met Omar Khadr, the youngest detainee at Guantánamo Bay, he was somewhere in the awkward gap between boy and man. He was broad-shouldered and lanky, but his face looked like a child's covered with acne. It was April 2006, and at that point the 19-year-old Canadian national had already been sitting in Guantánamo for nearly four years. This Thursday, his trial finally began.

Khadr's story is a long one, illustrating what has gone so terribly wrong with the justice system here in Guantánamo Bay. He was captured after a day-long firefight in an Afghan compound, during which someone threw a grenade that killed U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Speer. Almost everyone inside that compound was killed, and only 15-year-old Khadr was pulled from the rubble, with severe injuries to his eye, bulletholes in his back, and gaping chest wounds. First in Afghanistan and later at Gitmo, he has been ill-treated. Even if he is convicted now, the Supreme Court may well overturn the decision on appeal. He is a child raised to adulthood in an unjust prison. And if convicted, he could be sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

From the beginning, Khadr has bounced from one dangerous outpost of America's military judicial system to another. After the firefight in Afghanistan in 2002, Khadr was taken to Bagram Air Base. There, in addition to receiving medical treatment, he was hooded, forced into painful stress positions, threatened with rape, and confronted with barking dogs. We know this because Khadr's interrogators, including one convicted of abuse of another detainee, described the tactics they employed on Khadr and other detainees under oath during the pre-trial hearings.

After several months of such treatment, Khadr was transferred to Guantánamo, where he says the abusive interrogations continued. He did not meet with a lawyer until 2004, a full two years after he was taken into U.S. custody. In 2005, Khadr was charged under the first set of military commissions authorized by then-President George W. Bush. After the Supreme Court ruled that the military commissions system was illegal under both military justice law and the Geneva Conventions, the charges against Khadr were dismissed. However, not long thereafter, the military commissions were revised and Khadr was charged again.

I first met Khadr in 2006, when I was working for the chief defense counsel in the Office of Military Commissions and was at Guantánamo observing military commission proceedings. Khadr was not my client, but his lawyers were unable to travel that week and asked me to deliver a letter to him.

Khadr and I talked for a couple of hours. At the time, he seemed very frustrated. He reiterated the usual detainee complaints about his conditions, but he also seemed curiously disaffected, as if he was only going through the motions of complaining. He was discouraged by the lack of legal process and hinted that he was ready to give up his legal battle altogether. I knew that it was in Khadr's best interest to retain counsel, so I talked to him about the importance of working with lawyers. I was also Canadian, I told him, hoping that we might form a more personal connection. I went on to explain why I chose to work on behalf of detainees: I thought the system was illegal and that it was important to speak out against it. Khadr laughed with me when I said that I would get in trouble if he fired his lawyers immediately after meeting with me. We ended our meeting on a light note.

Not long after our meeting, he actually did fire his lawyers, American civilian attorneys working pro bono on his behalf. I have heard of many detainees in Guantánamo doing the same; I have even been fired by a frustrated client myself. It is the one decision that these prisoners are allowed to make. All others -- when to wake up, when to sleep, when to exercise, when to be interrogated -- are made for them. A Guantánamo detainee cannot even refuse to eat, since if he skips more than three meals he will be force-fed. (Last month, Khadr fired his third set of civilian lawyers. Now, as his trial for murder begins, Khadr is being defended by a single military lawyer who has been on the case less than a year.)

Khadr's trial was about to begin in January 2009, when the newly-inaugurated President Barack Obama ordered a stay of all military commission proceedings. Many believed that Obama would scrap the military commission system altogether, but that May, he announced his plan to revive an improved version of them. The resulting legislation did have better rules limiting the admission of hearsay and evidence obtained through coercion. So Khadr was charged yet again -- this time with murder, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. A military judge ruled this week that almost all of the statements Khadr made to interrogators were reliable, including those made following a threat of rape, and would be admissible at trial.

And so Khadr remains at Guantánamo, in largely the same predicament that he has been in for years -- trapped on a legal road to nowhere. Khadr is essentially being tried for being the enemy. Battlefield killings by irregular fighters have not historically been considered war crimes. But the legal theory underlying the prosecution's case seems to be this: U.S. forces can attack the enemy, but, if enemy fighters like Khadr shoot at U.S. soldiers, they are committing a war crime. If he's convicted, the United States could end up regretting its argument: Setting such a standard could implicate CIA officers and other non-uniformed U.S. personnel who either intentionally or inadvertently take part in combat operations.

That's not the only reason Khadr's trial should never take place. The military commission system, despite revisions, is still flawed and untested. Khadr will surely appeal any conviction, and the Supreme Court may well take issue with how his case proceeded. Khadr was never housed separately from adult detainees, the judge and lawyers have no special training on child soldier issues, and the military commission rules do not allow the jury to take into account Khadr's juvenile status when judging his guilt or innocence. And while it is not illegal to prosecute someone who was 15 at the time of an alleged offense, after eight years of detention, many of them abusive, it may be immoral.  

I saw Khadr again last September. I was visiting a client in Guantanamo -- my last visit before I left the Office of Military Commissions to work for Human Rights Watch. The guards left the cell doors open that day, and I passed Khadr's cell on my way by. Khadr saw me and asked his lawyer if I was the Canadian lawyer he had met before. At the lunch break, we were able to wave and say hello, again through the open cell doors.

Khadr had aged, but still had a boyish face, partially hidden behind a full beard. His eyes were still bright as his face broke out into a smile. Weeks later, I wrote him a letter. I had been in Canada meeting with members of a Human Rights Watch committee who were deeply concerned about Khadr's treatment. I wrote to Khadr about the meeting and reminded him that people all over the world are following his case and hoping that, sometime soon, either the U.S. or Canadian governments will do the right thing and stop his trial.

Now, months later, I am at Guantánamo again to observe Khadr's trial. I wonder whether there is any of the boy left in him, or if when he enters the courtroom we will only see a man, raised in Guantánamo. On the first day of trial, as I sat in gallery of the courtroom, Khadr turned back, caught my eye, and smiled.