Maha lives on the Egyptian side of Rafah. She is a cow, and has just been sold to a family in the Gaza Strip on the other side of town, across the border. Egypt and Israel have blockaded Gaza since 2007; at one point, Gazans could only export strawberries and carnations, while imports of even toilet paper were banned. One third of Gazan grazing land is a “buffer zone,” too, off limits to livestock. Beef is in demand.
Inside a large white tent, a rope lifts Maha off her feet, swings her over a hole and lowers her 25 meters down. Between US$500-$700 million of goods move through Rafah’s 1,200 smuggling tunnels every year, providing 1.7 million Gazans with up to 90 percent of their needs: fuel, food, concrete, cooking oil, Kalashnikovs, and cars cut into three then welded back together. At the bottom of the hole, Maha meets a 12-year-old Egyptian smuggler small enough to lead her through the narrow, 180-meter-long tunnel. Halfway, a Palestinian man takes over.
Over 100 people have died inside collapsed tunnels since 2007, but Maha makes it through. Now in Gaza, her ribs aren’t tastier, her sirloin no softer, but the 10-minute trip has doubled her value.
Digging a tunnel between the Gaza Strip and Egypt costs around US$80,000, depending on its size, and much more to upgrade it for car smuggling or to equip it with electric lifts and rail carts. It’s worth it. A tunnel owner can make $150,000 in a day from the smuggling business.
Correction: An earlier version of this article omitted Egypt from the sentence "Since Israel and Egypt imposed a blockage on Gaza in 2007..." Egypt closed its Rafah border with Gaza in June 2007 .