The Tunnels of Gaza

February 13th, 2009 - by admin

Sara Flounders / Global Research & The Times Online – 2009-02-13 00:40:59

The Tunnels of Gaza
An underground economy and resistance symbol

Sara Flounders / Global Research & Workers World

(February 11, 2009) — Resistance takes as many forms as life itself dictates.

Life in Gaza could not be more impossible. Its tunnels are a symbol of resistance. Eighteen months ago, outraged when the Palestinians voted for the militant leadership of Hamas in democratic elections, Israel imposed a total lockdown on the entire population of Gaza.

But the entire people were determined to continue to resist. They found a way to circumvent total starvation.

The Israeli blockade led to a new economic structure, an underground economy. The besieged Palestinians have dug more than 1,000 tunnels under the totally sealed border.

Many thousands of Palestinians are now employed in digging, smuggling or transporting, and reselling essential goods. Smuggling constitutes approximately 90 percent of economic activity in Gaza, Gazan economist Omar Shaban told The Guardian. (Oct. 22, 2008)

The tunnels demonstrate the great ingenuity and enormous determination of the entire population and its leadership.

Because millions of Palestinians have been forced into refugee status outside of historic Palestine, large extended families on both sides of the border help arrange the buying and shipping of goods or send funds so family members locked in Gaza can buy essential supplies.

The tunnels connect the Egyptian town of Rafah with the Palestinian refugee camp of the same name inside Gaza. They have become a fantastic, life-sustaining network of corridors dug through sandy soil. Tunnels are typically three-tenths of a mile long, approximately 45 to 50 feet deep. They cost from $50,000 to $90,000 and require several months of intense labor to dig.

They pass under the Philadelphi buffer zone—a border strip of land put under Israeli military control by the 1993 Oslo accords.

The Israeli siege of Gaza, followed by 23 days of systematic bombing and invasion, has created massive destruction and scarcity. Food processing plants, chicken farms, grain warehouses, U.N. food stocks, almost all the remaining infrastructure, and 230 small factories were destroyed. Now hundreds of trucks packed with essential supplies from international and humanitarian agencies sit outside the strip, refused entry to Gaza by Israeli guards. As soon as the Israeli bombing ended, work on the tunnels resumed.

Lara Marlowe reported from Rafah: “From a distance, you’d think it was a horticultural project. Banks of red earth criss-cross the Palestinian side of the no-man’s land between Gaza and Egypt. Every 20 or 30 meters, young Palestinian men work under what appear to be greenhouse canopies,

“The tunnels of Rafah–more than one thousand of them–are a major stake in the war between Hamas and Israel. Israel wants the tunnels shut; the Palestinians say they would starve without them, because of Israel’s 19-month siege of the Gaza Strip. Despite three weeks of heavy bombing, the majority of the tunnels are open.

“The area has as many holes as a Swiss cheese. ‘Sometimes the tunnels intersect,’ says a worker. ‘We try to avoid it. We go under or over other tunnels. It’s like directing train traffic.’

“The smugglers work in jeans, T-shirts and bare feet. ‘We shore up the collapsed parts with wood,’ Hamdan [a tunnel worker] explains. ‘If the Israelis bomb again, we’ll use metal next time, and concrete the time after that. As long as there’s a siege, the tunnels will keep working.’” (Irish Times, Jan. 26)

Food is towed through on plastic sleighs. Livestock are herded through larger tunnels. Flour, milk, cheese, cigarettes, cooking oil, toothpaste, small generators, computers and kerosene heaters come through the tunnels. Every day, about 300 to 400 gas canisters for cooking come through the lines. On the Egyptian side the trade sustains the ruptured economy while corrupt or sympathetic guards and officers look the other way.

Electricity and fans provide ventilation. Essential supplies of diesel fuel are pumped through the tunnels in hoses and pipes.

Rami Almeghari, editor-in-chief of the Gaza-based Palestinian Information Service and contributor to The Electronic Intifada, has described the organization that goes into digging and maintaining the tunnels. The Hamas-led government in Gaza imposed regulations and restrictions on the tunnel trade to avoid accidents and prevent smuggling of drugs and prohibited substances. “However, the besieged Hamas government cannot guarantee an end to the tunnel trade, unless the Israeli blockade comes to a halt.”

Almeghari interviewed one tunnel worker as he loaded cooking oil canisters: “Let Israel besiege us the way it wants, and we bring in what we want. At the end of the day, we will not let anyone repress us.”

Xinhua News headlined a Jan. 22 article: “In spite of Israeli offensive, Gaza tunnels are back to work.”

“We dug tunnels because we have no other alternative. Israel was imposing a very tough blockade on Gaza Strip and the tunnels were the smartest way to defeat this blockade,” Hashem Abu Jazzar, a 23-year-old worker, told Xinhua News.

“As long as Israel is still imposing the siege on Gaza Strip, I don’t think that we will stop working in the tunnels, but if all crossings are fully and permanently opened, I believe that working in tunnels will automatically stop,” said Abu Jabal, a 45-year-old owner of a tunnel.

Commercial tunnels are used only for food, fuel, medicines and basic necessities. Other totally separate tunnels are operated by resistance groups to bring in small weapons and munitions.

Israel claims it drops 100-ton bombs on the tunnels from F-16 jets to stop Palestinian rockets. But closing off supplies to an entire population or bombing life-sustaining tunnels will not prevent the firing of small rockets.

A population with skills, education, massive unemployment, lots of time and no future will be able to build rockets, mortars, pipe bombs and mines out of the tons of scrap metal and twisted ruins that Israel left behind.

The continued blockade is strictly punitive.

The Israeli military and their Pentagon backers are deeply frustrated. The bombing failed to demoralize the Palestinian people or break their will. It is also clear that the massive bombardment of the Rafah border and the targeting of hundreds of tunnels have failed to close these lifelines of basic supplies.

On Feb. 1, Israel again bombed the border, targeting the tunnels.

What is needed is a broad international campaign to demand an end to U.S.-supported Israeli collective punishment and an end to the intended starvation of an entire population.

The only possibility for peace in the region is through the recognition of the full rights of the Palestinian people to return to all their land. Their sovereignty and economic development must be guaranteed.

The immediate starvation siege must be lifted. The international movement that emerged in solidarity with Gaza must focus world attention on this international war crime.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

In the Tunnels of Gaza,
Smugglers Risk Death for Weapons and Profit

Paul Martin in Rafah

(June 28, 2008) — The “eye” of the tunnel was a small, square hole sunk between shiny kitchen tiles in an abandoned house in the Gaza Strip. To get in was a matter of grabbing hold of a rope emerging from the darkness and jumping into the opening.

Twenty five feet below the ground a narrow passageway, barely 3ft wide, stretched half a mile under the border into Egypt.

Scrabbling through on hands and knees – sand spilling from the roof, caking hair and face with grime – the greatest fear was that, with no struts or roof supports, it would cave in and bury us. Concern that the tunnel might be discovered and poison gas or a sniper sent down to kill Abu Mutassem and his four fellow-diggers hardly made the 45-minute crossing less frightful.

The tunnellers moved slowly through the cool passage after nightfall, hand-held lights penetrating the darkness. The only air came through metal tubes hidden in prickly-pear groves near the border. At last the tunnel opened out in to a chamber dug beneath a building on the Egyptian side.

“Do you have your passport?” one of the smugglers asked. Climbing out of the hole and emerging in an Egyptian border town in the dead of night was out of the question. Jail was the least I could expect if caught.

Canvas bags thumped down into the tunnel and Abu Mutassem and friends hauled them back under the heavily patrolled border into Gaza.

Only after he had climbed back up the rope and emerged from the “eye” did Abu Mutassem check his cargo: 70 short-barrelled Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifles, individually wrapped in plastic to keep out the dirt.

Each weapon would fetch $1,200 (£600) in Gaza. They had cost less than $200 from the desert Beduin community. Abu Mutassem and his men would share about $250 dollars for each gun. The profit margin on bullets was even higher. The big winner from their enterprise would be the tunnel owner or “snake head” who had put up about $50,000 to buy the house on the border.

This week Hamas closed down 35 of these tunnels. It was unclear whether this was because of a dispute with the “snake heads” or as part of the Islamic movement’s commitments with Israel under a six-month ceasefire deal. Most, though, remain intact and the “military tunnels”, used to bring rockets, explosives, fighters and funds into Gaza, will not be demolished.

The operators of the “commercial tunnels” plied by Abu Mutassem and his colleagues say that the market for small arms is drying up after a glut of weapons. Like any travelling salesmen, the smugglers vary their cargo to meet demand: sometimes drugs, often cigarettes, perfumes, fugitives (going rate $2,000 a trip) and, very occasionally, even African snakes or wild animals to stock a zoo.

The “snake head” typically needs only one successful crossing to turn his initial investment into profit. He is usually quick to snap up the four-wheel-drive vehicles, the phalanx of gun-toting bodyguards, the new villa and other trappings of the successful entrepreneur.

Those left underground are less fortunate. “It’s the worst job in the world,” said Abu Mutassem.

Three tunnellers have died in the past two weeks. In one case a tunnel collapsed after the Egyptians pumped in water. The digger was dragged out by his feet 24 hours later by a member of one of the extended tribal families that dominate the tunnel business. The tunnelling culture is so well established in Rafah that the high street barber – the Shaheeds’ (Martyrs’) Salon – has pictures of dead tunnellers on its walls and mirrors, alongside their shovels and other memorabilia.

The latest tunnels are much more sophisticated than Abu Mutassem’s rudimentary route. Electric tools have replaced digging by hand. Telephone and electricity cables pass through the tunnels, many of which have air pumped in and winches to carry people and goods across. Vacuum cleaners remove loose soil.

Business is booming again after a temporary halt earlier this year when Hamas blasted holes in the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, opening the way for thousands of Palestinians to cross into Egypt on a massive shopping spree. “We diggers knew it was just a breather, and normal service would be resumed,” said Abu Mutassem.

Since Israel cut off much of the trade to Gaza petrol has become one of the most profitable commodities being smuggled in, in plastic jerrycans. Nabil Erbaya and his son Helmi were among those to die last week after they were overcome by fumes from fuel spilt underground.

“We are dipping our bread in blood,” Helmi’s uncle said as a queue of people shook hands with the mourners at a wake outside the family home. Another son, Arafat, 17, recovered and has vowed not to go down the tunnels again, but his 14-year-old brother is ready to pick up the family trade.

“I may be digging my own grave,” he said. “But down there it’s a goldmine.”


— Rafah straddles the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. It is divided by an 18ft metal wall that stretches more than 2km (1.2 miles)

— An estimated 40,000 people live on the Egyptian side of Rafah, and 150,000 on the Gaza side

— Tunnels have been used to smuggle goods, weapons and people across the border at Rafah since the early 1990s

— As deep as 20 metres, most have ventilation shafts every 200 metres or so, and engineers can dig an estimated 15 metres a day, using a compass to set the direction

— They are dug from the basements of homes along a 9km stretch of the border

— Having a person smuggled across costs about £1,000, A sack of items about £150

— Since January 2003, the tunnels have been used to smuggle large amounts of various types of weapons into the Gaza Strip, including dozens of RPG rockets and launchers, hundreds of kilograms of explosives, hundreds of rifles (mainly Kalashnikov AK47s) and tens of thousands of bullets, cartridges and other types of ammunition