Gaza: Under Israeli blockade, a boom in smuggled motorbikes

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    A Palestinian motors past bottles of gasoline for sale near the Egyptian border.
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A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

GAZA CITY, GAZA – Five months after Israel’s 22-day war in the Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians are still struggling to rebuild their lives. The facades of homes are riddled with bullet holes, schools have gaping holes in the walls from rocket strikes, and bombed government offices remain piles of rubble.

Yet one aspect of life in Gaza was quick to return to business as usual: the vast network of underground smuggling tunnels which provide a lifeline to the 1.5 million people in the war-torn territory.

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Despite Israel’s heavy air attacks, hundreds of tunnels continue to operate and thousands of dollars worth of food, clothes, machinery, and weapons arrive each day from Egypt. They are also bringing a new ride to Gaza’s streets: motorbikes.

When extremist Islamist group Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, Israel sealed the borders and imposed a blockade. The legitimate economy collapsed and unemployment soared.

Only the most basic supplies can now enter, so new cars and supplies of alternators, transmissions, rims, or fuel pumps has steadily dwindled. This has made motorbikes – smuggled hundreds at a time through the largest tunnels running between Egypt and Rafah – a hot commodity on the streets.

They are a welcome cheaper alternative for families in crippling times, but a menace to the already traffic-clogged bumpy roads.

“I needed to repair my car but there was nothing to fix it with in Gaza,” said Hisham Khader, who recently sold his four wheels for $3,000 and bought a shiny new black 250cc Honda motorbike for $1,500 instead.

It is now his sole means of transporting himself and his seven children around. “I use the bike to go everywhere now: to take my sons to school, to go to the market, whatever I need.”

Gaza’s authorities believe at least 8,000 motorbikes regularly weave their way between cars, trucks, and donkey-drawn carts in the strip of land which is just 25 miles long and between three and seven miles wide. What started as a slow trickle of Hondas, Dayuns and Katanas has become a torrent in the past 12 months as the effects of the blockade intensified.

The influx has forced police to stem the flow of motorbikes in recent weeks and ensure all drivers have sufficient training.

“It’s a normal thing to have a motorcycle but the problem is that no one has a driving licence ... so there are a lot of accidents,” said Col. Abu Jihad, head of Gaza’s traffic police. “And more motorbikes keep coming every day.”

On a Friday afternoon, hundreds of motorcycle enthusiasts gather on the sand dunes once home to the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif. The riders show off their skills: revving their engines and speeding down one dune then up another to perform small jumps, wheelies, and the occasional crash landing.

“This is more fun than driving a car, and we just come here to have fun,” said 32-year-old Jaser Abu Jazar, who works as a trader bringing the bikes through the tunnels on demand.

The battle to control motorbike riders has been stepped up with renewed vigor in recent weeks. “Eight thousand motorbikes is enough for Gaza,” Colonel Jihad said. “We don’t have space for them – we don’t have any more roads.”

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