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Gaza's Tunnels: Graveyards for the living
By Mohammed Omer
Her father, 41-year-old Bassam Khader, an unemployed construction worker, had tried everything possible to provide a living for his family-but to no avail. His only remaining option was to work in the tunnels, even though this is considered the most dangerous job in Gaza, and known as "the trade of death." According to Bassam's niece, Muna Khader, her uncle received between 50 and 80 NIS ($13 to $21) per 12-hour work day.

Following Hamas' victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections - which international observers, including President Jimmy Carter, described as free and fair - Israel sealed off its borders with Gaza, claiming the action was necessary to prevent weapons from being transported into the Strip. But the effect of the blockade was to deny the people of Gaza many of life's basic necessities.

With no way to import or export food, livestock and other supplies, the tunnel industry was born as a way to circumvent the closed borders. It also has made its owners and operators relatively wealthy, while the rest of the population is left to dig and run the tunnels. According to Interior Ministry spokesman Islam Shawan, there are now at least 900 tunnels operating between Gaza and Egypt.

Gaza's booming tunnel economy provides supplies, basic goods and work for those whose livelihoods vanished with the sealing of the borders, leaving them access only to the barest humanitarian necessities. More recently, individuals traveling through the tunnels represent a new source of revenue, offsetting the losses suffered by tunnel owners as a result of the partial opening of Israeli-controlled crossings.

The tunnels may seem to be a reasonable and profitable alternative to the closures. Beyond an easily obtained permit, however, there is little if any government oversight. According to advocate Hazem Hanyia of the Independent Commission for Human Rights, there are virtually no regulations controlling the hazardous working conditions for those for whom tunnel work is their only option for survival. A study Hanyia conducted found that working conditions in the tunnels do not meet minimum standards for workers, and thus are in violation of labor laws. Tunnel workers receive no health or life insurance for their dangerous work.

The lack of legal, economic or social insurance is the least of many Gazans' problems, however, when so many remain unemployed. As tunnel worker Abu Odai explains while weeping over the death of his colleague Khader, any work that puts food on the table is better than "swallowing just air." Indeed, the stream of desperate workers means that as soon as the body of one worker is removed, another worker is ready to take his place.

Bassam Khader disappeared while working in a tunnel at the end of January, when there was heavy rain and flooding of the sewage system in Rafah's Al Junina neighborhood. "He may have drowned," says his niece Muna, noting that the fire department was busy at the time rescuing local residents from the flooding and seemed unconcerned with yet another tunnel accident.

When eight tunnel workers were brought out injured but alive, Khader's family was hopeful that he, too, might have survived. But he and two of his colleagues remained missing. So, despite their poverty, his family borrowed 25,000 NIS ($6,765) to rent bulldozers and hire workers to dig 65 feet deeper in the mud beneath the Gaza-Egypt border.

Bassam Khader's body was found nine days later. His wife was able to identify him only by the clothes he had been wearing the day he disappeared. She blames the tunnel owner, convinced that he knew the flooding conditions made it unsafe to work. But he nevertheless insisted that Khader work half a day if he wanted to receive the pay he was owed for the previous week's work.

Khader had been working for a few weeks in a tunnel that was empty and rarely used. This made it difficult for the family to identify the tunnel owner, especially since all the owners denied that Khader had worked for them. Yet as much as Muna Khader and her aunt blame the tunnel owner, Muna says the government also is responsible by not banning tunnel work during such stormy weather conditions. Moreover, she adds, the government "did not even bother to offer condolences in solidarity with the victim's family."

Muna tried to call members of Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza, but her calls were not returned.

According to the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, hundreds of children become orphans in similar situations, or have parents severely injured in tunnel collapses, but local authorities do not respond for fear of losing the tax revenue on goods - including fuel, construction materials, cars and food products-transported through the tunnels.

Since 2006, Center statistics show, 235 people have died in the tunnels. Of those, 20 workers were killed by Israeli missile strikes on the tunnels, and an additional 597 were injured in tunnel collapses. An increasing number of injuries are caused by electric shock, the result of inexperienced workers connecting uninsulated wiring. In late February the workers were subjected to yet another new risk, as Egyptian troops flooded the tunnels with sewage water, in a pungent attempt to shut them down.

Injured tunnel workers receive only basic emergency treatment, while to the families of those such as Khader who die, Hanyia says, the tunnel owners offer a small amount of compensation not considered adequate under legal or Islamic shariah requirements: the family of a dead tunnel worker who is single gets $5,000, while a married worker's family receives a one-time compensation of $10,000.

Even though the owner of the tunnel where Khader worked was finally identified, however, his family received no compensation. Now they find themselves in limbo and debt - despite the fact that local authorities know that tunnel owners have reaped money, property and luxuries from their businesses built on the backs of 1.7 million Gazans.

Moreover, Hanyia says, Gaza's de facto Hamas government is delinquent in monitoring construction and maintenance of the tunnels despite full knowledge of their number and location. All tunnels are licensed by the Rafah Municipality, which provides electricity and additional services. Nabil Al Mabhouh, spokesman for Gaza's Ministry of Labor, says the tunnels are an "emergency phenomenon" made necessary only by Israel's siege of Gaza and closure of the usual trade crossings.

All the more reason, argues Hanyia, for the Palestinian Authority to keep the pressure on the international community to lift the economic blockade on Gaza and allow in materials Israel prevents from entering Gaza.

According to Zaki Khader, neither the government nor the tunnel owners covered the funeral costs for his late brother, leaving a huge burden on his young widow and eight children. "They can't be left alone without any source of income," Muna Khader insists. If the government does not act soon, Zaki Khader plans to publicly plead his case by setting up a family protest tent at the opening of the tunnel where his brother died. His hope is that those in charge will acknowledge the plight of a family which, having lost its only breadwinner, finds itself living on the edge of total desperation. -

—(TWNF)

(Award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer reports from the Gaza Strip, where he maintains the Web site www.rafahtoday.org. He can be reached at gazanews@yahoo.com, and followed on Twitter?@mogaza.)


News Updated at : Saturday, May 11, 2013
 
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