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June 24, 2009 / jeni

Tunnels: The Nexus in Action

Khalil Hamra/AP

Khalil Hamra/AP

A few weeks back, the Observer ran an intriguing article on the tunnels that connect Gaza to the outside world:

The tunnels are not supposed to exist at all. As the war in Gaza ground to a close in January, Israel insisted on a ceasefire condition that the subterranean network be closed. Yet there are now scores of them – more than ever before – snaking ever closer to each other. On the Egyptian side, bribes and an unwillingness to close off Gaza keep open the tunnels and smuggling routes. Analysts say that Israel knows this full well, but finds their existence convenient because they take pressure off the argument for reopening the Gaza crossings.

What comes through the tunnels is what keeps Gaza afloat economically. Metal ladders lead down brick-lined shafts into layers of shored-up sandy tunnels through which are winched bags of cement, cigarettes, cheese, children’s bicycles and car parts. Even herds of lowing cattle are led through the larger workings.

Above ground, amid the Israeli bomb craters and ruined houses where the tunnels begin, their entrances are patrolled both by their owners and black-clad men from Hamas.

The pathways that circumvent blockades, sieges and sanctions are some of the clearest manifestations of the crime-conflict nexus. They represent an undeniable opportunity within a conflict for criminal actors and networks, who are among the best positioned for the smuggling, bribery and coercion required. If they manage to sustain these activities for a lengthy period, they can become important and powerful players not only in the ongoing conflict but in the post-settlement political landscape.

Tunnels are an interesting case because unlike many other smuggling routes, they are fixed in space. They also offer fixed control points — the entrances at either end — and thus a potential bonanza in transit fees and bribes. Unfortunately for Gazans, they have also become a source of social predation: a recent investment scam bilked local Palestinians out of $100-500 million.

At first the tunnels emerged as smuggling routes; then they became the vital lifeline for a Gaza under economic siege by Israel. But many people who invested in the tunnels now see them quite differently – as a source of ruination. The tunnel schemes were advertised as opportunities for doubling and trebling money by unscrupulous figures linked to powerful businessmen in Gaza and, allegedly, to senior officials in Hamas, but have instead led to huge losses for ordinary residents of the Strip.

The article goes into quite some detail about how the tunnels are run, the costs involved and the likely beneficiaries of their use. It’s well worth a read.

It also reminds me of a fascinating book I read last year: Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo, by Peter Andreas — a truly riveting and original book. I lent it to a friend who experienced the siege firsthand, and she said it was one of the few things she had read that really captured its dynamics.

The genius of the book is to contrast the ‘formal front-stage’ and the ‘informal backstage’, arguing that the siege cannot be properly understood in terms of its length and characteristics without a full accounting of the illicit dynamics that sustained it.

The city took center stage under an intense global media spotlight, becoming the most visible face of post-Cold War conflict and humanitarian intervention. However, some critical activities took place backstage, away from the cameras, including extensive clandestine trading across the siege lines, theft and diversion of aid, and complicity in the black market by peacekeeping forces…. Andreas traces the interaction between these formal front-stage and informal backstage activities, arguing that this created and sustained a criminalized war economy and prolonged the conflict in a manner that served various interests on all sides. Although the vast majority of Sarajevans struggled for daily survival and lived in a state of terror, the siege was highly rewarding for some key local and international players. This situation also left a powerful legacy for postwar reconstruction: new elites emerged via war profiteering and an illicit economy flourished partly based on the smuggling networks built up during wartime.

I’d like to return to this book in future, as it showcases many of the themes we address in this blog. But for now I would just direct people to its section on the tunnel underneath the airport tarmac, which allowed an estimated 20 million tons of food to enter the city, provided an escape route for thousands of people — and made some people very, very rich.

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