The Palestine Entries: Into the tunnels we go

// Entry #24

There are an estimated 1,200 tunnels running underneath the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The tunnels are mainly used for importing goods into Gaza that are otherwise prevented from entering through Israeli checkpoints and land crossings. These goods include most candies and colas, cars, sheep, and clothes, and every once in a while, an Egyptian bride.

These tunnels always fascinated me, mostly because of their controversial nature but also because of the sheer ingenuity that lies behind the construction of every individual tunnel. I never realized how complex these structures are until I saw them with my own eyes.

There are two kinds of tunnels. The first features a gradual slope deep into the ground and eventually surfaces in Egypt’s North Sinai governate. According to one of the tunnel operators, the entire trip lasts between three to ten minutes. These ramp tunnels vary in size, height, depth, and width but are usually very short and are used to import fish and other small products. Motors pull large plastic containers back and forth through the tunnel.

The second type of tunnel looks more like a conventional well and, at face value, appears much more elaborate. After dropping more than 25 meters into the ground, the tunnel digs its way under the border and up another well.

I was lucky enough to enter both kinds of tunnels. The ramp tunnel was used exclusively to smuggle fish and sheep into Gaza. It was hit five separate times by Israeli air strikes, compelling the tunnel owner to reinforce the interior of the tunnel with thick metal sheets and wooden planks. Eco-friendly lightbulbs illuminated the entire tunnel which, at maximum, was only four feet in height.

The second tunnel, the well tunnel, featured a deep drop into the cool Earth surface, lightbulbs, and a radio in the form of a plastic telephone to maintain contact between those on the ground and those within. I had a brief conversation with my mother who was worried about my wellbeing even though she was standing just meters above me.

It is worth mentioning that the presence of these tunnels does not negate the fact that the Gaza Strip is still under siege. The remaining three borders, including all sea and airspace, are controlled in full by the Israeli armed forces and although the border with Egypt is run by Egyptian and Hamas guards, it is ultimately regulated by the Israeli military which tracks the movement of all Gazans and foreigners traveling to and from the territory. Israeli checkpoints remain closed to Palestinians unless for emergency medical situations and goods, humanitarian aid, and construction material are still prohibited from passing into the Strip.

Although the tunnels do supply Gaza with certain goods, foods, and cars, they do not assuage Palestinian frustration with the strangling siege nor do they provide enough to sustain the growing infrastructure of the territory.

Nevertheless, the tunnel system continues to grow even though the Israeli military regularly targets the tunnels with air strikes.

Videos to come soon.

Sami Kishawi

There are 3 comments

  1. 48Refugee

    Wow! What an adventure! I hope you interviewed some of the smugglers while you were there. I have a cousin that no one ever knows anything about because he works in the tunnels and is constantly between the Egyptian and Palestinian sides of Rafah, it plays a big role on family life.

  2. Reem Naser

    I had no idea there were that many tunnels! I always wondered what they looked like. Great shots Sami, keep it up! 🙂

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