Naseem has a closely-cropped goatee, and was wearing glasses and a black Fila sweatshirt when I met him. He is a bit heavy-set, and is 25 years old. The same as me, I tell him. Last December, he spent a couple of full days underground. He wasn't spelunking-he was practically buried alive. He used to work in the Rafah tunnel network, and was entombed for a couple days because an Israeli general ordered an Israeli F-16 to bomb a chunk of the Egypt-Gaza tunnel warren to smithereens. Luckily for Naseem, this didn't quite work-the tunnels were sturdier than expected.
Naseem spent over a year working in the tunnels, from before December 2008 to December 2009. Tunnel work was good money amidst the economic devastation Israeli police has wrought in the Gaza Strip. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), in December 2008, unemployment reached 50 percent, the highest such number in the world. UNRWA adds that "Labour market conditions in Gaza in 2008 were arguably the worst in its history." With the labor market swamped with supply, there are few options for the many workers in desperate demand of jobs. Young men were forced to scurry underground like moles in their urge to feed and educate their families.
That group of young men includes people from all strata of society. Naseem went to the University of Damascus, and studied computer science there. His father lives in Abu Dhabi. His aunt, uncle, and cousins live in Tel al-Hawa, a nice neighborhood in Gaza City full of concrete and stone apartment blocks and houses, marred here and there by impossibly torqued beams of metal and pulverized building materials, the streets' asphalt still striated by the tracks of tank treads. His family used to own a clothing store, and he was able to help with his cousins' food and living expenses. But amidst the collapsing Gazan economy, the store was unable to bring in enough cash. Naseem went into the tunnels.
He tells us that tunnel workers work 24-hour shifts, followed by 12 off-hours. 24 on, 12 off. Not good for circadian rhythms, but the solar daily calendar doesn't matter quite so much when you're working under 31 meters of earth. He was paid $100 a shift. Excellent money, then and now in Gaza, where the median wage in 2009 for employees was 57.7 shekels, a seventh of what Naseem was able to make in one shift. His work was taking things from houses on the Egyptian side of the fence, from Egyptian Rafah, into the tunnel, whereupon someone would relay them through the tunnel to Gaza. 31 meters underground, 1200 meters long.
They paid off the Egyptians, who are fully aware of the tunnel trade. The tunnel he used to work in was under a mosque. He was perpetually visible. He said they paid the Egyptians 3600 shekelim per shift. The Israeli shekel trades at roughly 3.7 to the American dollar. They never had any problems with the Egyptians, bringing through gas, olive oil, cigarettes, meat, aluminum, paint. It wasn't the Egyptians that they had to be afraid of. Just the work itself, which physically destroyed them. Naseem said he would be above ground in Egyptian Rafah for three to four hours, collecting and organizing goods, then 20 hours below ground, in the dark tunnels. He said that they were so busy that they didn't even break to check their watches as their shifts wound down. "You get tired, you die from the work," he told us.
Unless you die from something else first.
Along with Naseem, there were three other men working in the tunnel, the normal complement. When the Israeli F-16 unloaded a missile on the Philadelphi corridor, where the Rafah tunnels are concentrated, the explosion collapsed a portion of the tunnel on the Gaza side of the border. Naseem worked much closer to the Egyptian side. Normally, when tunnels are pummeled, workers are able to escape out to the Egyptian border, and re-enter Gaza via a different tunnel, or the same one, when it is repaired. But this time, another missile hit another tunnel warren, causing four tunnels to collapse. One of them collapsed onto Naseem's tunnel. One man died almost instantly-a 23 year old, Ahmad Yousef, from Gaza City. Another's legs were almost severed. He will never walk again. Naseem will have a metal kneecap and a lumpy white scar across his knee for the rest of his life. His ankle was broken, as were the fingers of his left hand and the bones in his left arm.
He spent three days in those tunnels, alongside a rotting corpse. The tunnel operators run steel pipes through the tunnels to ensure a constant supply of oxygen. People on the Gazan side of the border ran sugar-water through the pipe once an hour. That sugar-water kept him nourished and hydrated, while he waited to be dug out. But 70 meters of tunnel had crumbled, practically the entire Gazan side, along with part of the Egyptian side of the tunnel. He and his remaining co-workers were in a safe pocket between the collapsed zones.
Luckily, the tunnels are packed in close, paralleling one another in carefully planned routes through the earth. They are as near as seven or eight meters from one another. They dug out to the nearest tunnel, and then emerged into the air. It is cold in Rafah in December at night, and the pain from all the broken bones heightened in the frigid air. Naseem said that none of them will ever work in the tunnels again. What they will do for work is less certain. As he says, "There is no work here." UNRWA agrees, saying that "unless Gaza is allowed to develop normal economic activity, unemployment, falling wages and deeper poverty will remain serious problems."
And young men will keep dying in the tunnels. According to the Mezan Center, in 2010 so far five men have died in tunnel collapses. In 2009-2010, Israeli strafing killed 10 Palestinians in the tunnels. 141 men have died. 353 people have been injured. Not all men. Four of them were children.
Here are some more of these men's names: Mohammed Ahmed Abu Al Hassien. He was 22. He died on February 22 2010, when he came into contact with a live current while working underground. Mohammed was from Gazan Rafah. He was dead before he arrived at An-Najar Hospital. Here's another: Ashraf Ahmed Hashim Al Attar. He was 23. He died on January 30 2009. He also died when he came into contact with a live current while working underground. Ashraf was from Beit Lehiya, in Northern Gaza. He was also dead before his body arrived at An-Najar Hospital.
The current UNRWA Commissioner General, Filippo Grandi, says that an illegal economy "is being imposed...on the Gazans." That imposition comes from the Israeli government in collaboration with Egypt, which forces Gazans to rely on tunnels for elementary human needs. The Mezan Center says that the "siege represents a form of unlawful collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza and has seriously harmed their human rights while the international community has remained silent," adding that the siege "has driven" the tunnel economy. Deaths in the tunnels are not accidents. They are predictable, the effects of a nearly hermetic closure that forces Palestinians to rely on dangerous supply-lines to keep what's left of the economy functioning.
On Monday, April 19, in the morning, Muhammad Abu Sha'ar died in a tunnel collapse. He was 22, and died as Israeli 22-year-olds prepared to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day. On Monday, April 19, at night, Mohamed Abu Sha'er died in a tunnel collapse. He was 20. Mezan will need to update its records. That makes seven this year.