For six years, Rafat Shororo longed for the taste of a KFC sandwich he had eaten in Egypt. This week, he got his finger lickin' fix at home in the Gaza Strip after a local delivery company managed to smuggle it from Egypt through underground tunnels.
"It has been a dream, and this company has made my dream come true," says Mr. Shororo, an accountant, as he receives his order from the delivery guy.
The al-Yamama company advertises its unorthodox new fast-food smuggling service on Facebook. It gets tens of orders a week for KFC meals despite having to triple the price to 100 shekels ($30) to cover transportation and smuggling fees. The deliveries go from the fryers at the Al-Arish KFC joint 35 miles away to customers' doorsteps in about three hours.
The fact that the tunnels operate quickly and cheaply enough for the Colonel’s secret recipe to be enjoyed in the tightly controlled Gaza Strip shows just how much of a sieve the Egypt-Gaza border has become.
"All you need to have any KFC product is a short phone call and a few hours, then you can enjoy the great taste of fried chickens," says Shororo, checking over his chicken pieces, salads, and apple pies. Like other customers who are acquainted with KFC from their travels abroad, he says he doesn’t care how much it costs. “I just want it.”
KFC may be one of the stranger products to come through the hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza that have sprung up in the past six years in response to Israeli restrictions on imports to the Hamas-run territory, which allow cars, sailboats, motorcycles, weapons, fish, and now even drumsticks into the tiny coastal territory. While Egypt has a border crossing at Rafah, it is limited to foot traffic, and Cairo has so far refrained from opening a commercial crossing and thus risking Israel’s ire.
Ironically, one of the reasons smugglers agreed to start dealing in KFC is because Israel’s easing of restrictions on trade since the November cease-fire with Hamas has dealt a serious blow to the tunnel business.
The KFC delivery service in Gaza started with a hankering rather than a business plan.
Mohammed al-Madani, financial manager of al-Yamama company, says the employees of the company decided to order some meals for themselves from the KFC restaurant in the neighboring Egyptian city of al-Arish.
Someone from the company contacted a friend in al-Arish, asking him to make the order and then bring it through the tunnels; the whole process just took three hours.
"Then we asked ourselves, 'Why don't we provide this service for Gazans?'" says Mr. al-Madani.
The company got more than 20 orders a few hours after a short advertisement was posted on their Facebook fan page. Those who order are well-to-do people and don't care much about the price of the food compared to the original price at the restaurant.
"Most of those who order are people who are accustomed to travel and eat KFC food around the world," says Madani.
Al-Madani says the process of smuggling the food into Gaza is not difficult at all.
"After getting the orders, we call our partner in al-Arish and ask him to make the orders, after getting the meals, he goes to a specific tunnel and asks smugglers to transfer them into the other side of the tunnel; this may take a few minutes," says al-Madani.
For the tunnel owner who smuggles the KFC food, moving the meals is a bit strange. Smuggler Abu Iyad says the tunnels are meant to bring in basic food stuffs, construction materials, and sometimes people. "This is the first time to smuggle such goods," he says.
He adds that the tunnel business has gone down recently mainly after Israel relaxed the embargo it imposed on the territory after Hamas seized it in 2007.
"This is why I accept to smuggle anything except weapons and drugs," Abu Iyad says as he carried the buckets of KFC with the famous face of Col. Harland Sanders.
"The tunnel business is not like before, things are going worse and barely work, especially after the Egyptian army started to tear down the tunnels,” he says, referring to attempts to shut down illegal smuggling after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed at Rafah in August 2012. Both Egypt and Israel are concerned that the tunnels are facilitating jihadist attacks in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.
With Israel relaxing the embargo and allowing more goods to reach Gaza cheaply, the premium that smugglers could once charge for some goods has gone down, according to Abu Iyad.
“Bringing some meals like these would cost $200 or more three years ago, but now they don't even cost $20. The Egyptian and Hamas police are not giving us the chance to work freely and the business may shut down if things continue to be this bad."
At the Gaza side of the tunnel opening, a Hamas policeman was waiting to check if the buckets contain any forbidden materials. Apparently greasy chicken is not on his list. Abu Iyad is given a green light to deliver the food to the Al-Yamama delivery guy who will take the meals to customers.
"I wonder why people pay a lot of money to buy a small meal of chicken," asks Abu Iyad wryly. “I can buy four chickens for the price of one meal.”