From the trenches

A first-hand look at Gaza-Egypt border tunnels.

Gaza smuggling tunnel 311 (photo credit: Ashley Bates)
Gaza smuggling tunnel 311
(photo credit: Ashley Bates)
On a peaceful day in war-ravaged Gaza, seven-year-old Yousef burst into his home with blood gushing from his left eye. A playmate had lobbed a small rock, which struck Yousef directly in his pupil. A doctor at a local clinic stopped the bleeding, but said there was nothing more he could do. His mother and father then decided to take matters into their own hands.
“I couldn’t wait for the hospitals in Gaza,” said Yousef’s father. “I knew [bringing Yousef through the smuggling tunnels] would be dangerous, but I wanted to give hope to my son to [be able] to see. The equipment, doctors and treatments are better in Egypt.”
Only two days after the injury occurred last fall, Yousef and his mother descended into the earth on a wooden plank attached to a metal rope and a rickety lowering device. They then crawled through a square, two-meter-wide passageway, inhaling damp, stale air and ducking to avoid loose light bulbs and electric cords. Yousef cried the whole way.
“I wasn’t thinking about the fear or the danger. I was only thinking about my son.” his mother recalled. Fifteen minutes later, mother and son ascended from the abyss and emerged inside the home of an Egyptian family.
The husband had encouraged his wife to make the treacherous journey. He figured that women and children are less likely to be jailed if caught by the Egyptian police, who are notoriously brutal in their treatment of illegal Palestinian travelers but sometimes turn a blind eye to obvious humanitarian cases. The couple reasoned that there was no other way to get Yousef quality medical help right away. The Egyptian border was closed as usual, and “nonemergency” permits to get medical treatment in Israel took time to obtain.
While most tunnel owners charge about $2,000 to smuggle a person in one direction, Yousef and his mother traveled for free. They made it all the way to the Egyptian hospital, only to discover that the Egyptian doctors could not cure Yousef either. The giggly seven-year-old still roughhouses with his friends, but sees only with his right eye.
Yousef and his mother are among many people who travel through the tunnels for the same diverse reasons that they would cross a legal border. Some go from Gaza to Egypt to work in other countries. Some seek to escape problems in Gaza. Some visit sick relatives. Women from Egypt, Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Sudan come through the tunnels to marry Gazan men, many of whom met them while working abroad. Freelance journalists denied Gaza entry visas are rumored to have entered through the tunnels.
Among the Gazan women who used the tunnels for ordinary travel is 60-year-old Umm Waleed, a lively, robust grandmother whose eyes disappear under her wrinkled skin as she laughs. Two years ago, Umm Waleed crossed the border into Egypt legally en route to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic pilgrimage. However, she returned a few weeks later to find the border closed. Loath to wait for it to reopen, she accepted a friend’s offer to take her through a tunnel free of charge.
“I just said, ‘God is with me,’ and I didn’t worry,” Umm Waleed said, smiling and raising her chin. “There was electricity and a fan inside the tunnel. I sat by [the fan] to take a long rest. And I prayed inside the tunnel. I prayed again and again.”
While the precise number is impossible to pinpoint, Gazan economic analyst Omar Shaban estimates that more than 1,000 tunnels could be in operation along the 11-kilometer border. The tunnels typically bring medicine, food, fuel, appliances, building materials, car parts and any commodities banned under Israel’s economic blockade, which is aimed at isolating Hamas. Some tunnels are even large enough to bring cars into Gaza.
The World Bank reports that about 80 percent of Gaza’s imports now come through the tunnels. This illegal economic lifeline has also become a source of revenue for the Hamas government, which charges tunnel owners an annual license fee of NIS 10,000.
Before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, thousands of Palestinian homes were razed by Israeli bulldozers on suspicion that they covered the entrances to tunnels. At that time, the tunnels were primarily used to smuggle drugs, luxury items and weapons, including explosives for suicide bombers and supplies for Kassam rockets.
According to tunnel owner Abu Wadeya, only about 20 tunnels existed when he started his business in 2005. By the time Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, the tunnel industry had begun to proliferate. “Right now, if you have a tunnel, it’s like you have a shop,” Abu Wadeya said. “[Five years ago], if you had a tunnel, you would be rich.”
Since then, Israel and Egypt have seemingly allowed the tunnel industry to proliferate. Egyptian soldiers heavily monitor the tunnel industry to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and the travel of Islamic militants into Egypt, but they generally allow goods to pass freely. Hundreds of white tents perched near the border cover the entrances to tunnels and openly invite Gazan workers to risk their lives for about NIS 50 to NIS 100 a day. While tunnel workers used to come only from the border town of Rafah, desperate civilians now come from across Gaza to earn some income.
Many of these workers are young boys.
The tunnel owners used to ask the permission of the boys’ parents. Now they don’t even bother. “We’ve all stopped doing this because we know the families will allow it,” said tunnel owner Haysam. He added that it’s much easier to employ children who are more energetic, more eager to work for low wages and less afraid of the danger.
IN MID-APRIL, community activists in Rafah organized the first demonstration against child labor in the tunnels. The scene moved some bystanders to tears. About 200 spirited youngsters marched through the streets alongside a procession of homemade toy corpses on wooden stretchers. Onlookers raised their eyebrows as they read messages on the little demonstrators’ placards. “Tunnel owners: let our children live their childhoods!” said one sign. “Tunnel owners: save our children from death!” said another.
A soft-spoken, illiterate 18-year-old named Muhammad is one of many youngsters who left school to work in the tunnels. Last year, an electric cable severed four fingers on his left hand. Two months after this harrowing ordeal, Muhammad went back to the tunnel because he “needed to support his family and save money for his wedding.” His father died of a heart attack eight years ago, leaving him and his older brother the only breadwinners in their immediate family.
Muhammad’s mother, Umm Anees, emphasized that she would be unable to support her six children without the income that her two boys earn in the tunnels. Since the family’s home was destroyed by Israeli bulldozers in 2005, they have lived in a rented apartment that costs NIS 700 a month. The family receives NIS 400 a month assistance from the UN Relief and Works Agency, as well as donations of staple foods.
“The demonstrators don’t want our kids to work in the tunnels – OK, fine.” said Umm Anees. “But bring them different work. I fear for my children every day... When the border opens, God willing, it will be a happy day.”
THE EGYPTIAN government is currently constructing a 35-meter subterranean barrier aimed at blocking and destroying the tunnels. According to tunnel owner Abu Wadeya, the subterranean barrier will likely spawn the creation of “deeper, more dangerous tunnels.” The danger is real.
In 2009 alone, 64 workers died in tunnel accidents, including 13 children, according to the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights, a Palestinian NGO. Of these, 33 died when tunnels collapsed, 22 from inhaling toxic gases and nine from electrocution. Since 2006, at least seven people have perished in IAF air strikes on the tunnels, and more than 250 have sustained injuries as a result of working there, according to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights.
Tunnel owners report that Egyptian security has conducted more tunnel raids and arrests in recent weeks, just as Hamas is suffering a major financial crisis, according to economic analysts. In mid-April, Egyptian soldiers pressured tunnel owners to temporarily stop their operations. The closures came after Israel claimed it had reliable intelligence that militants planned to kidnap Israeli tourists in Egypt and hide them in Gaza, using the tunnels as a thoroughfare. In late April, Hamas accused Egypt of spraying poisonous gas into a tunnel, killing four men. Egyptian authorities declared a state of emergency a few days later because they received intelligence that an angry mass of protesters planned to storm the border.
Amid these rising tensions, a soft-spoken villager in northern Gaza is currently considering the desperate option of tunnel travel. Suhail Zaaneen suffers from a serious but treatable spinal condition that is causing him to slowly lose sensation in his limbs. He walks with a limp and can barely feel his left leg. His condition has reached a critical point, and if he does not get emergency surgery within the month, he could suffer permanent paralysis. “God only knows when it’ll be too late,” said his doctor, Basil Baker.
The Fatah-controlled Ministry of Health in Gaza requested to have Zaaneen treated at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Jerusalem because doctors in Gaza do not have the necessary training and equipment for the delicate operation. Zaaneen is waiting for a surgery appointment date as well as an Israeli security check. He’s terrified that the process could take weeks or that he’ll be rejected. He specifically asked to have his story printed in an Israeli newspaper.
In the meantime, Zaaneen is investigating alternative options. “If there’s no other way, I’ll go through the tunnels,” he said, looking at the cement floor in his sparse cinder-block home. “I know it’s dangerous, but not more dangerous than the danger of being disabled for the rest of my life.”