Haneen Khader had no option. As soon as she learned of her father’s death, her March wedding celebration had to be canceled.
Forty-one-year-old Bassam Khader, an unemployed construction worker, had tried everything to provide a basic living for his family, to no avail. His only option was to work in the tunnels—known as “the trade of death” and considered the most dangerous job in Gaza.
In 2006, following Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections, Israel sealed off its borders with Gaza, and Egypt, which borders Gaza to the east, followed suit. Heralded as necessary to prevent arms from entering the strip, the blockade resulted in the people of Gaza being cut off from many of life’s basic necessities. Without the ability to import or export anything, the tunnel industry was born in the city of Rafah on the Egyptian border.
It was in one of those makeshift burrows, to the international market of goods, that Khader perished. For workers still employed underground, the news gets worse. In early March, Egyptian troops started a new tactic to shut down the tunnels: by flooding them with sewage water.
According to Interior Ministry Spokesman Islam Shawan, there are now at least 900 tunnels operating between Gaza and Egypt. The flourishing business is a distressing signal of Gaza’s economic isolation. A World Bank report released last week found that the Israeli restrictions have caused "lasting damage" to the competitiveness of the Palestinian economy.
Even if these tunnels seem like a reasonable and inevitable workaround, there is little oversight or regulation controlling the working conditions, said Hazem Hanyia, a lawyer at the Independent Commission for Human Rights.
Bassam Khader disappeared at the end of January while working inside a tunnel following heavy rain and flooding of the sewage system in Rafah’s Al Junina neighborhood.
Left without help from overworked emergency crews, Khader’s family had to borrow money to rent an excavator and hire workers to dig 65 feet underneath the Gaza-Egypt border. When eight workers were brought out injured but alive, Khader’s family was hopeful that he too might be OK.
Nine days later, his body was found. His wife was able to identify him only by the clothes he had worn the day he disappeared. She was convinced that the tunnel owner was to blame and insisted that he knew it was unsafe to work during heavy rains. But, as a condition for Khader to get his wages for the week, the owner forced Khader to work a half day.
“What hurts me most is that the tunnel owner has never been questioned by the authorities,” Muna said.
For a few weeks, Khader had worked in a rarely used tunnel, making it difficult for the family to identify the owner. Owners they knew denied employing Khader. As much as Muna blames ownership, she says the Gazan government is also responsible by not banning such work during heavy weather conditions.
The government “did not even bother to offer condolences as part of a social solidarity with the family of the victim,” says Muna.
Muna tried to call members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, but nobody returned her calls.
Since 2006, 235 people have died in the tunnels according to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. Among them, 20 workers were killed by Israeli missile strikes on the tunnels—597 were injured due to tunnel collapse and still more by electrocution accidents.
The tunnels themselves are quite profitable for the few families who own them. Tunnels are licensed by the Rafah Municipality, which provides electricity and additional services. The government collects taxes on fuel, construction materials, cars, food, and other supplies secreted into the strip. Even so, worker safety has never been a high priority.
Hazem Hanyia of the Independent Commission for Human Rights studied the working conditions within the tunnels and found they do not meet minimum standards for workers—functioning in violation of most nations’ labor laws.
Wages aren’t great either. Khader received between 50 and 80 shekels for a 12-hour day ($13 to $21). These workers are undervalued, underrepresented, and, worst of all, easily replaceable.
Workers who survive accidents receive only basic emergency treatment, and to those who die, tunnel owners offer the family some compensation not considered adequate under legal or Islamic Sharia requirements, says Hanyia.
A dead tunnel worker who is single gets $5,000. A married worker gets a $10,000 one-time payout. Hanyia says this is not enough. Eventually, Khader’s family figured out who owned the tunnel but received no redress.
Nabil Al Mabhouh, spokesman of the Ministry of Labor in Gaza, says the tunnels are an “emergency phenomenon” only made necessary by Israel’s siege on Gaza and closure of the usual trade crossings.
Left without recourse, Khader’s brother Zaki, took to protest by setting up a tent at the tunnel opening with little hope that those in charge will acknowledge the plight of a family on the border of total desperation.
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