Israel/Palestine/Egypt: antiquities smuggling and the Gaza Strip tunnel economy

Two Gazan Palestinians, Imad A. and Abdullah M., have admitted to using a smuggling tunnel in order to enter Egypt, but they have also been accused of smuggling antiquities (gold objects and pharaoh statues); allegedly, ‘the goods were in their possession before the arrests‘. While the immediate contribution of the illicit antiquities trade to Gaza’s economy is clear (and the cost to Gaza’s long-term economy is even clearer), the functioning of that trade is unclear.

Egypt-Gaza smuggling tunnels: lifeline and death trap

The smuggling tunnels are engineering marvels: many are more than twenty metres deep and a kilometre long; some are used to smuggle cars or even lorries. But they are also incredibly dangerous: hundreds have been killed or injured while building or using them; and many of those have been murdered by Egyptian police flooding the tunnels with sewage, toxic waste water or poisonous (suffocating) gas (with Hamas’s complicity), or by Israeli forces bombing them.

Citizens of Rafah have engaged in tunneling since 1982, when it was split in two by Egypt and Israel. However, the tunnel economy (previously of 1,000-3,000, still of 150-500 passageways) erupted in 2007, when a Hamas government was elected by Gazans, and a blockade of Gazans was imposed by Israel. Up to 15,000-25,000 people work in the tunnels, primarily bringing essential goods, such as food, medicine (and doctors), clothes, fuel, livestock and building materials into the blockaded Gaza Strip; basic commodities such as phones, cigarettes and alcohol follow.

Egyptian wholesalers supply Egyptian-controlled Rafah’s Palestinian tunnel operators, who deliver the goods to their (commonly family) business partners in Israeli-occupied Rafah, who sell the goods to Gazan Palestinian buyers; and Gazan families and businesses sell their products out through the tunnels.

Hamas is trying to stop drug smuggling; and it may have banned arms smuggling, but it may also have its own exclusive arms smuggling tunnels; and militants move between the countries through the tunnels too.

The Hamas government’s economic ministry spokesperson, Tarek Lubbad, petitioned that ‘[t]he tunnels are the only lifeline for us here and the closure of the tunnels means the death of Gaza‘, where 1.6m people live, of whom more than 30% are unemployed and nearly 40% are in poverty.

Do Hamas smuggle antiquities or tax antiquities smugglers, or do antiquities smugglers evade Hamas?

Antiquities are one of the few commodities that go both ways; Palestinians ‘smuggle antiquities [both] out of the Strip [and] from Egypt into Gaza with the goal of bringing them into Israel’.

Both smuggling and the taxation of smuggling are big business

Hamas ‘regulate and tax goods” import and export through the tunnels; they have sold tunnel permits and taxed smuggled goods since 2009, and have made between $188m and $750m per year doing so. (Naturally, there are no definite statistics on a literally underground economy.)

Ethical business

Hamas have banned ‘non-Islamic items’, such as drugs, from Gaza. And they have restricted the trade in other goods; a Hamas tunnel committee has listed ‘items… that [cannot] be brought in without its approval‘, which include fuel and cars. But the moral (albeit not the legal) position on antiquities looting is contested; and I have been unable to find the complete list of restricted items.

Confusing matters further, ‘[a]rmed Hamas guards’ are ‘stationed at every entry point to the tunnel zone’, but tunnel operators do manage to smuggle things past Hamas (as well as everybody else), so the existence of the trade is not evidence of their approval. And most illicit antiquities diggers in Palestine are ‘”subsistence looters” who dig as a way of surviving poverty‘; so neither their engaging in digging, nor others’ passive turning of a blind eye to or active lending of a hand in the business, necessarily reflects a moral acceptance of the activity in and of itself.

Religious authorities and police forces act against the illicit antiquities trade

Since illicit antiquities are stolen property, Hamas may consider them to be ‘non-Islamic items’ that should be blocked. Certainly, the Supreme Muslim Council of Palestine considers the looting and smuggling of antiquities to be ‘self-theft’; and it considers theft or destruction of cultural property to be ‘treason‘. Even if Hamas didn’t oppose the illicit antiquities trade on historical and moral grounds, they might still oppose it on anti-imperialist, nationalist or long-term economic grounds.

All of Palestine is making great efforts to conserve its archaeological sites and historic buildings and to promote its cultural heritage. Hamas’s Gaza and Fatah’s West Bank police do act against antiquities smugglers. So it seems that Hamas’s civilian wing does enforce a ban on the illicit antiquities trade.

Moral temptation

Yet, at the same time, in spite of the Supreme Muslim Council’s fatwa against destruction, Hamas’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, ‘bulldozed a part of the ancient Anthedon Harbor’ with impunity; so neither humans’ nor God’s law is inviolable. Whether (elements within) Hamas levied an antiquities looting/smuggling tax or conducted an antiquities looting/smuggling operation, it would raise a lot of money, so it might be considered an acceptable or desirable act to benefit the religious/nationalist cause.

God’s work or the Devil’s?

Indeed, some Islamic scholars (including some who themselves illicitly dig antiquities) argue that ‘it [is] not forbidden‘ in the Qur’an or the hadith (the sayings that are traditionally attributed to the prophet Mohammed or his companions) ‘to vandalize heritage resources in [the search] for valuable objects’; that archaeological resources are ‘ore [rekaz]’ and their extraction is acceptable as long as ‘one-fifth of their monetary value [is] donated to the poor and needy’; and that antiquities extraction is not theft as ‘all heritage objects within ancient, archaeological sites [are] the property of no one’.

Basically, it’s complicated. And it’s complicated everywhere: in Iraq, for instance, (Shi’ite) Muqtada al-Sadr/Muqtada as-Sadir ‘permitted digging [of and trading in]… pre-Islamic material culture‘, as long as the profits were spent on ‘[buying] guns or building mosques‘, but the Shi’ites’ supreme leader al-Said al-Sistani issued a fatwa against the looting of (any) cultural property.

Antiquities looting as civilian economy, political resistance and terrorist financing

For most Palestinian looters, illicit antiquities digging is a way to make a living; but for some it is ‘a resistance to the Israeli occupation‘ and to Zionist land claims, in which archaeological claims are vital. They ‘make a conscious decision to prioritise the destruction of the Jewish/Israeli past over the preservation of the Palestinian heritage’. (Ironically, they may identify all archaeological materials as Israeli and therefore unwittingly destroy evidence for Palestinian nationalist archaeological claims as well.)

Thus, both as Palestinian nationalists and as Islamists, at least some elements within Hamas may actively support and encourage the looting and smuggling of “non-Islamic” antiquities, and especially pre-Islamic Arab communities’ jahili cultural property (artefacts of the Days of Ignorance [Jahiliyyah]); but neither their involvement in the illicit antiquities trade nor the illicit antiquities trade’s funding of their activity is yet clear.

To reiterate, the two tunnel users have not been found guilty of anything and they have not been identified as members of Hamas, and Hamas have not been proved to be taxing smuggled antiquities or smuggling antiquities themselves. However, if the tunnel users are convicted of antiquities smuggling, it will immediately raise the questions of whether (elements within) Hamas are funding activities by taxing antiquities smuggling, and which activities those taxes are funding.


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