Inside the Secret Smugglers’ Tunnels of the Gaza Strip

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Hopefully.

The air is stuffy and smells of dirt, and the dangers are many. At the halfway point, there may be no exit within half a kilometer. And if this weren’t enough to inspire extreme claustrophobia, then consider the fact that above the tunnel ceiling lies over 20 meters of soil and rock. It seems such a long way from the surface, with its human conflict and political turbulence, yet threats ranging from aerial bombardments to cave-ins have provided more than enough to concern those who make a living here, deep underground.

Notwithstanding all the strife above ground, until recently, at least, it certainly wasn’t quiet in the subterranean passageways that run below the town of Rafah – which spans the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. There were the sounds – and sights – of people moving to and fro, containers stuffed with goods and weapons being dragged along, machinery humming, and even the plaintive mooing of cows being herded through the tunnels.

Tunnels can be over 20 meters deep in some places.

Unlike the explorers of natural caves, the people who’ve traveled through these extensive tunnels have not done so for purposes of research or recreation. These underground passages were actually illegal channels of commerce linking the two countries whose border they crisscross. The tunnels were in use for years, and although repeated attempts were made to close or simply destroy them, they continued to operate. Until now, at any rate.

Tunnels reinforced against collapse

In 2007, Israel and Egypt agreed to impose a blockade on the Gaza Strip. According to Israel, the purpose of this was to put pressure on Hamas, the organization in control of the Gaza Strip, and to limit their ability to launch rocket attacks from the area. Under the blockade, goods such as certain foodstuffs, clothing and gasoline have been allowed into Gaza, while other items and materials, including cement, metal pipes, musical instruments and even paper, were restricted or banned – or at least were so prior to June 2010.

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Tunnel entrance

In spite and because of such restrictions, day after day these tunnels were used for the transportation of goods – including medicines, food, alcohol and cigarettes, building materials, livestock, and even cars. In the past, certainly, weapons were also brought through the secret passageways, although in 2008 Hamas claimed to have forbidden the smuggling of arms as well as drugs through the tunnels. Nevertheless, the Israelis have said Hamas has its own hidden tunnels that it uses for the import of weapons.

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Going down into the depths

In 2009, Rafah residents claimed that European doctors were smuggled through the tunnels to Gaza during an Israeli offensive, where they went to treat those in need of medical attention. The reinforced tunnels even managed to withstand Israeli air force bombing and remain operational throughout the fighting.

It’s hard to imagine cattle moving through this tunnel.

Photographer Benoit De Freine had mixed feelings about publishing these images. “Since my objective in Gaza is to give back human dignity to the people of Palestine, showing these pictures of smuggling tunnels is really in conflict with that purpose,” he says. “However I feel obliged to share these pictures to show the great will of survival of Palestinians.”

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A blocked tunnel

Working on or in the network of underground tunnels is a hugely risky business. “Many people die while digging these tunnels, which are often longer that one kilometer,” says De Freine. “Even now [in 2011], on an almost daily basis there are casualties… due to collapses, bombardments or while constructing new tunnels,” he adds. Indeed, between 2007 and 2011, more than 100 Palestinians were killed in tunnel collapses, with at least 45 dead due to cave-ins in 2008 alone.

The tunnels can vary in height and width.

In the past, both Egypt and Israel have made attempts to halt the illegal construction of tunnels. The Israeli army relies largely on gathered intelligence to discover the underground networks. They have also occasionally drilled down through the earth in locations where they have suspected tunnels to be located.

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A man in the tunnel shows just what a tight squeeze it is down there.

Once Israeli authorities ascertained the location of a tunnel, they would try to find its source – usually the basement of a house or other hidden spot. The army would then destroy the tunnel using explosives – up to one ton per tunnel – ensuring that it could no longer be used for smuggling. A dangerous operation for both soldiers and smugglers.

Tunnels can be basic or contain added features and equipment.

“In recent years Egypt placed big metal plates in the ground to cut off the tunnels, which forced Palestinians to dig deeper, often deeper than 20 meters,” says De Freine. “There are even stories of Egyptian forces flooding or releasing gasses into tunnels on purpose, in order to destroy the tunnels, often leaving many casualties as well.”

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Containers presumably used for dragging goods through the tunnel

Yet, despite all the risks, the tunnels continued bringing banned supplies to the people of Gaza and provided a lucrative business to those who built and ran them. In 2008, one tunnel operator claimed that between 20,000 and 25,000 workers were employed underground. More recently, it was estimated that the movement of goods is worth about half a billion dollars a year, making it a vital part of Gaza’s economy.

Digging out the secret tunnels is a dangerous business.

The construction of the smuggling tunnels has not come cheap either. A regular 500-meter long tunnel can cost up to the equivalent of around USD 111,300 to excavate, while USD 185,500 is the approximate price tag on a tunnel twice as long and with extra safety features. However, for the tunnel owners, the profits must have been worth the initial expense – and the risks faced by their workers.

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Some tunnels even have electricity.

As an example of the kind of money there was to be made, ahead of the Muslim Id Al-Adha in 2008, large numbers of festival calves were being transported through the tunnels. Each of these animals was sold to Palestinians for the equivalent of about USD 750 per head. “Even if we brought in animals every day we would not meet the demand for the Id,” said a tunnel operator at the time.

If investors have the money, a tunnel can come with extra safety features and equipment.

All the trade through the tunnels came to an end very recently, on August 5, 2012, when the tunnels began being sealed off by the Egyptians. This course of action was prompted by an attack that occurred two days earlier that saw 16 Egyptian border guards massacred by 35 gunmen. After the attack, the gunmen drove across into Israel where they were killed by Israeli forces.

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Switch panel for the tunnel electricity

The Egyptians say they believe the attackers came through the tunnels, which they have closed at their end. Hamas have condemned the slayings and have also sealed off the tunnels from the Gaza side. However, Hamas say they do not believe the militants used the tunnels. “Gaza had nothing to do with the attack and no one from Gaza sneaked out through the tunnels,” maintained Hamas spokesperson Ihab al-Ghussein.

The no-go land between Egypt and Gaza

On the subject of the sealing off, Gaza deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad said, “We closed the tunnels to prevent anyone from sneaking in or out of Gaza during the pursuit of the offenders and those who backed them.” Israel, on the other hand, say jihadis have been going across from Gaza to Egypt and joining militants on the other side with the common goal of launching attacks on Israel’s border.

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This tunnel entrance is concealed beneath a plastic shelter.

Now there are fears that Gaza may suffer serious consequences as a result of losing this tunnel-based intersection and its resulting gray market. “The strip got used to the tunnels as a permanent crossing point, and every sector is completely dependent on them,” says economist Omar Shaaban, who heads a research organization headquartered in Gaza. “Closure even for only a week will cause a serious deterioration in the situation,” he warns.

Beneath the canvas.

Omar Shabaan explains that many of Gaza’s building materials come through the tunnels and that without them around 15,000 people who work in the construction industry will be left jobless. Shabaan also points out that the tunnels are a source of fuel and that “delaying this will worsen the electricity crisis and will stop work at bakeries, in factories and in transportation.” Already, prices for goods have skyrocketed in Gaza – up to 60 percent more, according to one tunnel owner.

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One of the shelled buildings of Gaza, evidence of the ongoing conflict

Benoit De Freine offers an insight into how important these tunnels are to the residents of Gaza. “The fact that the people of Gaza dug about 200 tunnels, longer than one kilometer, [with] many casualties over the years, must say something about the necessities which Gaza is lacking since the start of the Israeli siege. It also gives us a good [idea] of the [desperation] and the will to survive of the Palestinians.”

The border wall between Egypt and Gaza

It can’t be denied that the tunnels beneath Rafah have been used for more questionable aims, such as the smuggling of arms to militants in Gaza. However, many don’t believe that closing the tunnels will provide a solution. “We are not against any Egyptian or Palestinian security measures, but we demand they reopen the tunnels, maybe with a bit more scrutiny,” says tunnel owner Abu Mustafa. “But if we close the tunnels, people in Gaza will die.”

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There would be no way to cross this land without being seen if not for the tunnels.

It is not known when, if ever, the tunnels will be reopened. The Gaza deputy foreign minister Ghazi Hamad believes that even if it is proven that those involved in the recent Egyptian border guard massacre did not come from Gaza, it will likely still be some time before they are allowed to operate again.

A Palestinian waves from his balcony.

It is a difficult situation. The people of Gaza need their supplies, but the people of Egypt and Israel also need security. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that a solution acceptable to both sides will be found anytime soon, and, as in any conflict of this scale, the ordinary people will probably be the ones who suffer most.

We thank Benoit De Freine for sharing his photographs and knowledge of the smuggling tunnels with us.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

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