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Page last updated at 20:30 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 21:30 UK

Gaza tunnel smugglers trade in new cars

By Jon Donnison
BBC News, Gaza

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Video of a car being smuggled into the southern Gaza Strip

In the gloomy half light, a bulldozer strains to pull something through a roughly cut tunnel.

It's over 2m (6.5ft) high and close to 3m (10ft) wide, propped up by wooden supports.

Workers shout encouragement as the ceiling begins to collapse.

Suddenly a car, headlights glaring, lurches forward.

Filmed deep underground on the border between Gaza and Egypt, the mobile phone footage obtained by the BBC is conclusive proof of what has been rumoured in Gaza since last year - the tunnelling operation is now so advanced that entire brand new cars are now being smuggled into Gaza.

Desperate times

"What else could I do?" says Ahmed Bahloul, a successful businessman who owns a car garage, standing next to his brand new black Hyundai saloon.

"I wanted a new car, but because of Israel's blockade, the only way I could get it is through the tunnels."

Yellow Mercedes limo in Gaza showroom
We only have one car in the showroom... I can't sell it because it is the only new car I have to put on display
Marwan Kishawi, Car dealer

For the past three years, Israel has enforced a tightened economic blockade on Gaza, only allowing in limited humanitarian aid.

Israel says this is necessary to stop weapons being smuggled in to Palestinian militant groups inside Gaza and to put pressure on the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Strip.

Egypt has also closed its border with Gaza, only opening it occasionally.

But hundreds of tunnels have been dug under the border, through which a vast range of goods is smuggled in from Egypt.

Mr Bahloul paid $38,000 (£25,000) for his new car. Of that, $10,000 went to the tunnel operators, he says.

"It's a lot of money, but I wanted a new car," he says.

Bigger tunnels

There are very few new cars in Gaza. Locals estimate that only around 200 have been smuggled in through the tunnels in the past three years.

In the past, cars were cut up to smuggle them though narrower tunnels. But the tunnels have now been widened.

Bahloul
Ahmed Bahloul, proud owner of a brand new Hyundai

The lack of new cars means many cars in Gaza have seen better days.

It is not uncommon to see cars 20 or 30 years old belching black smoke from the exhaust.

Many Gazans resort to re-spraying old cars to make them look new.

In a busy paint shop just outside Gaza, workers in face masks are sanding down the bodywork of old cars before repainting them.

"Lots of people come back here over and over again," says Mohammed who works in the paint shop. "Some of the cars are 30 years old."

The number of motorbikes in Gaza has risen dramatically in the past three years because they are easier to smuggle.

Empty showrooms

There are still new car dealers in Gaza, but their showrooms are virtually empty.

Marwan Kishawi's family has been dealing Mercedes cars in Gaza City for more than 40 years.

Mohamed's car garage
Mohamed's paint shop does a thriving business

"Now we only have one car in the showroom," he says pointing at a bright yellow stretch taxi limousine.

"I have had this car for seven years. I have had many offers to buy it, but I can't sell it because it is the only new car I have to put on display."

Mr Kishawi says he used to import more than 100 cars a year from Israel, as well as $300,000 (£200,000) worth of parts a year.

Mr Kishawi says he cannot bring his cars in through the tunnels because they are too valuable and his suppliers at Mercedes will not allow it to happen.

He says he is spending thousands of dollars to keep the cars he has bought in storage at the border because Israel and Egypt will not allow them in.

"I haven't sold a new car for almost three years," he says, shaking with frustration. "It's desperate now."



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