Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Tunnel smugglers in Gaza
By: Suhaib Salem
When you walk inside the border area between Gaza Strip and Egypt, the first thing you see are hundreds of tunnels, used by smugglers to bring goods into the Gaza Strip. Building any tunnel is a hard task that requires precise care. Tunnel smugglers need to supply the underground passageway with electricity, air and a telecommunications unit.
Working underground is like living on another planet. Going down inside one of these tunnels is a very terrifying venture. Darkness fills the entire tunnel, which runs deep and long. Some small lamps are hung to light the way, cables lie on the ground and intercoms connect one side of the border to the other. These intercoms are used by the smugglers to enable the one who based on the Egyptian side to contact his colleague on the Palestinian side. After walking a few steps inside the tunnel, you hear humming from neighboring smugglers digging their own tunnels. Sometimes one tunnel breaches the wall of its neighbor, putting both in danger of collapse. Different types of tunnels are used for certain tasks. The food smuggling tunnel differs from the tunnel used for smuggling cattle or animals.
Each tunnel is custom built for its own purpose. Tunnels for cattle and animals are longer and deeper to ease the movement of calf or sheep inside the passageway. When Hamas seized power from the rival Fatah movement in 2007, Israel tightened its blockade of the Gaza strip. Today Gazans consider the tunnels a main crossing, and most of their needs — cement, medicine, food, refrigerators and raw materials — are supplied through them. Many shops in the Gaza Strip offer smuggled goods and people come from throughout the territory to shop in the markets of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. The frontier area is frequently bombed by Israel, which says it is trying to stop weapons smuggling into the costal enclave. Egyptian border forces also bomb some tunnels from time to time. Tunnels owners repair their tunnels as fast as possible. Despite the danger, Mohammed Joma, 35, decided to work underground to feed his family. Joma, who was working inside Israel as a labourer before a Palestinian uprising erupted in 2000, said: “I face risks every day but the bad circumstances force me to (work in the tunnels). Every day, my wife and my children bid me farewell before going to my work because they think that I may not return to my house. No one likes this work, but I need to build my family’s future.” Joma receives 100 Israeli shekels a day for his labours. Tunnel owners and many businessmen in Gaza are getting rich off the smuggling trade.