While many Gazans live in poverty, one Gazan refugee has used the illegal network of tunnels which enable goods to be smuggled into Gaza to build a millionaire’s empire.
Maybe, like most people in Gaza, I had been watching a little bit too much of the World Cup.
But sitting on Abu Nafez’s lush sprinkler-assisted lawn outside his palatial home in the southern Gaza Strip, I kept thinking it was a bit like meeting a Premiership footballer.
Twenty-five years old, lean, good looking, with a chiselled jaw and a neatly trimmed Beckhamesque beard, Abu Nafez is rumoured to be a Gazan millionaire. A tunnel millionaire.
And his is a rags to riches story if ever there was one.
‘Riddled with holes’
Abu Nafez was born in a refugee camp in the southern Gazan town of Rafah, right on the border with Egypt.
For at least five years, this place has been a smugglers’ paradise. The soft desert sand on which the town sits is riddled with tunnels into Egypt. If you could take a slice of the ground under Rafah you would find it riddled with holes – like a Swiss cheese.
Like thousands of teenage boys in Rafah, Abu Nafez started off at 17 as a tunnel labourer. Dangerous, dirty and demanding work. Hundreds of people have been killed in this underground industry, crushed or suffocated when the tunnels collapse.
Within four years though, Abu Nafez had become his own boss. He had dug his own tunnels. He had over 100 employees and was smuggling millions of pounds worth of goods into Gaza. Crisps, coffee, cookers, cows, cars – yes, that’s right, whole brand-new cars.
Sitting in his garden I asked him how much he earned. A shy smile crept across his lips as he sipped on a glass of mint tea. “Over £100,000 ($150,000) a year,” he reluctantly admitted. The look on his face suggested it was probably more.
Shoes and clothes have recently been allowed through into Gaza
The lavish home is the fruit of Abu Nafez’s labours. But the tunnels business has almost disappeared in the wake of Israel’s decision to ease its blockade of Gaza. In just a matter of weeks, he says, 80% of the tunnels have already stopped operating, unable to compete with cheaper, better quality goods now coming in from Israel. Why buy a dusty, battered box of cornflakes dragged laboriously and illegally underground from Egypt when you can get a nice shiny Israeli box of Kellogg’s finest for two-thirds of the price?
But money is tight in Gaza where nearly 40% of people are unemployed.
Frankly, most cannot afford to buy any cornflakes, Israeli or otherwise, when they cost around £3 a box – far more expensive than in London or New York.