Tunnels of Opportunity

Our correspondent in the Gaza Strip visits a car workshop that has just got going again
Sameh Habeeb
28 June 2010

Gaza is still living under siege, but life goes on thanks to the marvellous adaptability of its huge population. There is a crisis in nearly every life sector from water, to food, power and industry.  So this ingenuity takes a myriad of forms, but in every case it involves Gaza’s tunnels.

Lately, the tunnels have increased their capacity, smuggling costs have dipped, and the tunnel merchants are bringing in more goods via Egypt, opening up a new horizon for Gaza’s small businesses, such as those dealing in cars and spare parts for cars. Mechanics who have hardly worked for three years, are heading back into business. Busy as bees, every workshop seems to be revving up as spare parts and cars are filling their stores. However, prices are extremely high: unaffordable for the majority.

I went to visit one such workshop in the north-east of the Gaza Strip. My arrival coincided with a ‘shipment’ from the tunnels. The place was noisy: full of boys under fifteen shouting while they helped each other empty part of the delivery into their storage area. The Boss sat smoking the Nargila (Shisha/Bubbly Bubbly) while giving orders to his young subordinates. The smell of fuel, old and new, could suffocate the unwary visitor: it was difficult to breathe at first. And the noise only increased when a bunch of taxi drivers with technical problems entered the workshop searching for spare parts for their vehicles.

There are two types of employee sector in Gaza: one for Hamas and the other for Fateh. An estimated thirty thousand Hamas employees fill all the government posts from the army and police to the ministries. Fateh employees, numbering seventy thousand, are not working, having been requested to stay at home by the Palestinian Authority once Hamas took over Gaza in June 2007. Hamas supporters regard the money the Fateh employees receive as illegal gain. It is ‘Islamically Haram’ (which means that you gain money without exerting any effort for it). But it is very difficult for Fateh employees in fact to get paid.  Many of them have taken to working as taxi drivers to fill in the salary gaps. And here again they find themselves crossing Hamas, who don’t want them to take potential jobs from ordinary people without any income.

Arafa (Arab), the workshop owner, is however, back in business. He used to import car engines, spare parts and second hand cars from Germany, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and Israel. Since 2006, he and others like him were forced to stop work as Israel’s siege kicked in. In no time, the siege cost them their entire investments and brought income to a standstill. Arafa went back to making a reasonable living raising cows and goats – many of them also brought in through the tunnels.

But now it is possible once again to import spare car parts from Egypt.  It’s not entirely satisfactory, since some of the goods when they turn up are rather dodgy. Goods with defects can result in considerable losses for his business. And prices are high:

"We used to bring all these goods in easily and they were much cheaper than they are now. Bringing them from Egypt through the tunnels is a costly business. But it’s the only way to earn a living and after this long period of no work at all – it’s much better than nothing. In the past, one car engine might have cost you 18.000 NIS (Israeli New Shekels), or $450. But now, prices are crazy: each engine costs more like 65.000 NIS, more like $1500. We find it difficult to sell such goods: but some of our customers don't quibble about the price. They will do anything to be able to work and make a living for their families."

This buzzing industrial workshop is one of many in the same quarter. Though if you start asking about the smuggling that it depends on in detail, it’s surprising any of them survive.

Car engines and spare parts are first purchased by Palestinian or Egyptian merchants and shipped to Porsaid sea port In Egypt, the closest point to the goods’ next destination. Once these goods arrive officially in Egypt the smuggling process commences. A number of vans transfer them to the vicinity of the Egypt-Gaza border, in Rafah City. Then the heavy work starts. Each car engine, it is estimated, weighs as much as 100KG - 200KG. Smuggling them in takes anything from a few hours to two days, depending on the size of the shipment.  Each stage in the process adds more costs to each spare part.

Arafa is not at all sanguine about current conditions in Gaza. He dreams about the day that the siege will be lifted so that goods can stream into Gaza as they did once. Like others, he reckons that the Hamas government hasn’t succeeded in keeping the promises they made to the people who voted for them:

"What we need is for Israel to lift the siege now and give us control over our own borders. People here are not aggressors or killers. They are normal people who have families and children, and who need to work to support them. It upsets me, the way we are being ‘billed’ abroad as victims in need of charity and donations. Indeed, this is not so. We are a productive people. Let them open the borders and put us to the test. Then they’ll see…"

In the corner of the workshop, you can see an old woman in her 80s. Her name is Hidya, which means ‘a gift’ in Arabic language, and Hidya, Arafa’s mother has been working in this family business for the past 30 years. Her job can’t involve many onerous tasks, but it’s a pleasant enough occupation for a woman of her age. Over thirty years, she has helped guide her son’s decisions, on many occasions helping him to sell his goods, and getting a share of the proceeds on a successful deal.

"I like working here. I'm an old woman who has nothing left to aspire to in this life. I’m happy to spend most of my time in the workshop where I am always seeing and meeting new people. I make a commission on sales every now and again and at the same time, I’m helping my son to negotiate with his customers. More often than not we persuade them.".

Ahmed, now 17, one of Arafa's workers, left school in the 9th grade when he was thirteen. He worked in a small restaurant in Gaza city, until he discovered that he could make more in Arafa’s workshop.

His job is divided into two parts: first to help make breakfast for the old woman, Hidya; and then to work as a mechanic with Arafa.

I asked him if he regretted leaving his schooling behind him. He said, " I'm not bothered. Because I left school, I could help my family  - there are eight of us altogether. I'm getting paid well here, and it makes our lives much easier."

As for Arafa’s future plans, it’s impossible to plan since conditions in Gaza are completely unpredictable. If there is no political solution, he can only look forward to continuing to adapt to the prevailing political conditions:

“Of course, I’d like to expand my business again, as I succeeded in doing before 2005. But we can’t sell anything like the equivalent of the business we had before the siege in Gaza. It seems, since 2006, that we are just living in an ongoing nightmare. I hope it will end soon, because we are exhausted.”

I was just asking Arafa more about the quality of the goods he was getting from Egypt, when an argument broke out with three customers who were complaining about the poor quality and high prices. He told me he had nothing to add to what he’d said earlier, “Far too often, there are defects, and it is my business that has to take the loss, since there are no guarantees on these deliveries.” 

Images: Courtesy Sameh Habeeb

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