The swarm of tunnel activity on the Gaza border raises clouds of fine dust, a sure sign of the boom in underground trafficking since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
While the ousted president appeared in court this week on a stretcher, smugglers from the Palestinian territories — under an Israeli blockade since 2006 with Egypt’s tacit cooperation — were enjoying their newfound freedoms.
“Things have changed with the situation in Egypt. It’s chaos out there,” said Mohammed, 27, who runs a tunnel where workers were hoisting bags of cement.
Trade in cement, which is on an Israeli list of banned goods on grounds it could be used for military purposes, have risen by up to five-fold since the political shift in Egypt.
“Now, 150 tonnes per day passes through, before it was 20 to 30,” said Mohammed, sporting a moustache and cropped hair, sitting on a mat sipping coffee.
The sudden influx has dramatically slashed prices.
“A bag of cement is now worth 25 shekels ($7, five euros), at 20 bags per tonne,” he said. “Before, the price had risen to 200 shekels.”
“The people of Hamas do not collect taxes for the moment,” the young entrepreneur said, referring to the Islamist movement that controls Gaza.
“They just check that we do not bring in illegal goods, like drugs.”
But Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, recently set up roadblocks to filter access to the border area.
It also undertook to identify the tunnels, closing those that are unfinished or abandoned in order to apply the ban on items such as drugs or alcohol, and collect a tax on other goods.
“Hamas comes to inspect every week and takes about 20 shekels ($5.60, four euros)” per tonne of cement, said a young man at another tunnel, who also identified himself only as Mohammed.
“There have been more controls in recent weeks,” he added.
Tonnes of iron transit through another tunnel that is 25 metres deep (82 feet) and 750 metres long. Iron is now available on demand on the other side of the border.
“There was much more security on the Egyptian side before,” said Mohammed, who works in a 12-man team, doing a 12-hour shift for 250 shekels ($71, 50 euros) per day.
The permanent opening of the Rafah passenger terminal, decreed in May by the new Egyptian government, did not dampen the smuggling, because of a lack of facilities through the legal route.
Travellers at Rafah, Gaza’s only access that is not controlled by Israel, must register for permission to cross to Egypt two or three months in advance.
According to the latest weekly report of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 700 people on average leave Gaza through Rafah every day and 600 enter.
Nearly 30,000 have registered to go through in the coming months.
“It’s hard both ways,” said Rami Abu Shia, who had come to welcome his parents.
“It takes at least three hours to get in and seven to get out.”