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In Gaza, tunnel vision staves off starvation Add to ...

Say what you will about them, the people of Gaza are survivors. No matter what gets thrown at them, they find a way to get around it.

Just look at the tunnels at the south end of the Gaza Strip. First developed when Israel began restricting supplies into Gaza almost three years ago, these remarkable passageways are burrowed down in the ground 10, 15 or even 20 metres. They then proceed some 500 metres or more under the border with Egypt, before coming up again, somewhere, on the other side.

And what began as a handful of tunnels, to get around restrictions imposed when Palestinians elected a Hamas government in 2006, grew in number along with the restrictions, until today, there are hundreds of them.

Yesterday, Gaza lifted a four-week ban on foreign journalists, allowing a look at conditions in the territory, which some had warned was facing a "humanitarian catastrophe." But although conditions in Gaza are far from ideal, many Gazans are able to get by on what the tunnels provide.

Controlled by Hamas, which takes a percentage, the tunnels tend to specialize. The earliest were used to bring in weapons; more recently they get around Israel's siege of Gaza. Some bring in meat - last week, entire flocks of sheep and goats made their way through tunnels in advance of the just-concluded Eid al Adha feast - others carry gasoline, propane tanks, generators, diapers, even motorcycles.

Prior to Israel's complete closing of border crossings on Nov. 4, the tunnels accounted for an estimated 35 per cent of Gaza's goods. Today they are responsible for a much higher percentage and are a big reason why Gazans aren't starving.

In fact, coupled with a large surplus of fruit and vegetables intended for markets in Israel, the vast majority of people here aren't wanting for food.

Reports that as many as 50 per cent of children are suffering from malnutrition are exaggerations, says Khaled Abdel Shaafi, director the United Nations Development Program.

"This is not a humanitarian crisis," he said. "It's an economic crisis, a political crisis, but it's not a humanitarian crisis. People aren't starving."

That doesn't mean it's pleasant, he said. "It's like a prison: You have shelter and food, but it's not a nice place to live."

With almost all factories closed for want of supplies, and Israel barred as a place of employment, between 45 and 50 per cent of men are out of work, he said.

His own program cut its staff to 54, from 120, in October.

Usually, the only Gazans with money at times like these are the 75,000 people who work for the Palestinian Authority. In these times of the tunnels, however, a large number of other people are suddenly flush with cash. Diggers make $100 for every metre of tunnel they dig, tunnel owners charge three or four times the price of most products they bring in.

Rafah, on the border with Egypt, always was regarded as the poorest of Gaza's towns. Not any more. Today, its dusty market is packed with products and with shoppers.

"Now you've got a whole new class of warlord," says Eyad Sarraj, a psychiatrist who runs the Gaza Mental Health Clinic. "These are the ones who come into Gaza or Khan Yunis, plunk down cash and buy cars, land, even penthouses."

"It's not a healthy situation," he says.

The tunnelling is being carried out right under the noses of both the Israelis and Egyptians. While early tunnels were dug clandestinely from inside homes along the border, these days they're being dug in the shade of simple tarpaulins, with mounting piles of dirt all around - easy to spot from Israel's lookout tower to the west, and its eye-in-the-sky zeppelin tethered at a nearby kibbutz.

When there only were a few of them, Israel denounced the tunnels. But, now that there are hundreds, they've been strangely silent.

"This tells me the situation will be like this for a long time," said a Gazan who holds a senior position with an international organization. "We are moving from a dependence on Israel, to a dependence on the tunnels and, from there, to a dependence on Egypt. I think that's exactly what Israel wants to happen."

"We are being pushed into Egypt," Dr. Sarraj said. Israel would like to keep its border with Gaza closed, and let Egypt open its border in Rafah," he said. "It's all part of [Ariel]Sharon's plan."

Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar doesn't buy it. "Israel's strategy is simple," he said in an interview yesterday. "They want to push us until we collapse, and Abu Mazen is helping them," he said, referring to the president of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"They tried it before, with Abu Ammar [Yasser Arafat]in 1994, and it didn't work," Dr. Zahar said. "It'll never work. Our power comes from more than guns; it comes from our popularity with the people."

Eyad Sarraj disagrees. The only way to stop Israel's plan, he says, is for Hamas and Fatah to work together.

But last week provided a perfect example of why they won't, he said.

Every year scores of Gazans go to the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage in Mecca. This year, however, Saudi Arabia would give visas only to those who applied through the Palestinian Authority. Those who applied through Hamas were out of luck. Hamas, in turn, blocked those with visas from leaving the strip.

"In all its years of occupation, even Israel never stopped people from going on the hajj," he lamented. "It just tells you, Palestinians are their own worst enemies."

CORRECTION

Israel opened Gaza to foreign journalists last week after a four-week ban. Cuts in UNDP staff in Gaza were made in November. As a result of editing errors, different information appeared in a story Friday.

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