Saturday, March 17, 2012

Gaza's Smuggling-Tunnel Millionaire

By Jon Donnison (BBC News)

While many Gazans live in poverty, one Gazan refugee has used the illegal network of tunnels which enable goods to be smuggled into Gaza to build a millionaire's empire.

Maybe, like most people in Gaza, I had been watching a little bit too much of the World Cup.

But sitting on Abu Nafez's lush sprinkler-assisted lawn outside his palatial home in the southern Gaza Strip, I kept thinking it was a bit like meeting a Premiership footballer.

Twenty-five years old, lean, good looking, with a chiselled jaw and a neatly trimmed Beckhamesque beard, Abu Nafez is rumoured to be a Gazan millionaire. A tunnel millionaire.

And his is a rags to riches story if ever there was one.

'Riddled with holes'

Abu Nafez was born in a refugee camp in the southern Gazan town of Rafah, right on the border with Egypt.

For at least five years, this place has been a smugglers' paradise. The soft desert sand on which the town sits is riddled with tunnels into Egypt. If you could take a slice of the ground under Rafah you would find it riddled with holes - like a Swiss cheese.

Like thousands of teenage boys in Rafah, Abu Nafez started off at 17 as a tunnel labourer. Dangerous, dirty and demanding work.

Hundreds of people have been killed in this underground industry, crushed or suffocated when the tunnels collapse.

Within four years though, Abu Nafez had become his own boss. He had dug his own tunnels.

He had over 100 employees and was smuggling millions of pounds worth of goods into Gaza. Crisps, coffee, cookers, cows, cars - yes, that's right, whole brand-new cars.

Sitting in his garden I asked him how much he earned. A shy smile crept across his lips as he sipped on a glass of mint tea.

"Over £100,000 ($150,000) a year," he reluctantly admitted. The look on his face suggested it was probably more.

Dwindling traffic

Bling is in short supply in Gaza. But Abu Nafez's house has got it. Loads of it

Set back from the road behind an intricate wrought-iron gate, its mirrored, tinted windows bounced back the setting sun.

The style - Palestinian with a twist - an alpine-chalet pine-roof extension to my knowledge unique in Gaza, providing the finishing touch.

This lavish home is the fruit of Abu Nafez's labours. But the tunnels business has almost disappeared in the wake of Israel's decision to ease its blockade of Gaza.

In just a matter of weeks, he says, 80% of the tunnels have already stopped operating, unable to compete with cheaper, better quality goods now coming in from Israel.

Why buy a dusty, battered box of cornflakes dragged laboriously and illegally underground from Egypt when you can get a nice shiny Israeli box of Kellogg's finest for two-thirds of the price?

But money is tight in Gaza where nearly 40% of people are unemployed.

Frankly, most cannot afford to buy any cornflakes, Israeli or otherwise, when they cost around £3 a box - far more expensive than in London or New York.

Skills for export?

And Israel's blockade is only being eased, not lifted. Gaza's devastated economy is unlikely to pick up. It will still be hard to get hold of the gravel and sand required for construction.

The Israelis say building materials, which are urgently needed in Gaza, can only be supplied to the United Nations. The UN still says it is getting only a fraction of what it needs.

The sea blockade remains in force. And exports, incidentally, are still forbidden too.

And crucially the restrictions on people's movements remain. Unless they are very sick, it is extremely difficult for Palestinians to get out of Gaza.

For all his riches, Abu Nafez has never legally left Gaza in his entire life. Once, he says, he managed to get across to Egypt by his own means but he was arrested.

I ask him, with all his money, where in the world would he most like to go. "Turkey", he grins.

"Really?" I laugh. "But it was the Turkish Free Gaza Flotilla that indirectly put you out of business."

"Yes," he says. "But I am happy the blockade is over and the Turks they have shown they care about the Palestinians."

So what will he do now his business is gone?

Some tunnellers have joked they could export their skills. Maybe go to the Mexico-US border and set up there, smuggling people or drugs into America. "You get me there, I'll go," quips Abu Nafez.

But for the moment the tunnel millionaire sitting cross-legged in the evening sun in his garden seems happy with his lot.

A big house, lots of money, a new wife and a baby. Genuinely pleased that the blockade, for the moment at least, is being eased - even if it means he is losing out.

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