Tunnels for hire as Gaza's smugglers risk their lives
The sun has dropped below the horizon and the muezzins in Gaza and Egypt produce two distinct walls of sound at either side of the deserted strip that buffers the border.
Darkness falls quickly on the no-man’s land that used to be patrolled by Israeli tanks. The 100m-wide strip is a graveyard of bulldozed houses. Mounds of rubble and steel spikes are monuments to what used to be streets.
A faint orange glow can be seen from beneath one destroyed house, its two floors lying like a sandwich on what remains of the walls. Under the collapsed floor and through what remains of three rooms, a group of tunnellers are beginning their night’s work.
The people of Rafah have been tunnelling to Egypt for more than 20 years in order to smuggle goods. Now there are more tunnels than ever as poverty forces increasing numbers of people to risk death underground.
Ahmed and his partners chose the ruined house because it is 30m from the fence that marks the border, yet far from any Egyptian watchtowers. It is easy to guard from a distance by day and there are no neighbours to disturb by night. The tunnel shaft is five metres deep and more than a square metre in cross-section. A pulley hangs above it to fetch up the yellow jerry cans that are used to carry the earth. The earth is then emptied into flour sacks to be discreetly emptied later.
Below the shaft, the horizontal section is much smaller, about 60cm by 70cm—the optimum size to give space and stability. Air is pumped into the tunnel with vacuum cleaners and via ventilation shafts. The latter also show partners on the Egyptian side where the tunnel is heading so that its path can be corrected.
It is an extremely dangerous profession, but the rewards can be large. For many young men, it is their only hope of gaining enough money to acquire property and get married.
‘This is the only way to make money in Rafah. It is dangerous but there is no other way,” said Ahmed, for whom this is the fourth project. ‘The first one made me $7 000, the second, $2 500 and the third was discovered by the Israelis before we could move anything.
‘It used to be mainly cigarettes and coffee that was smuggled. Now it’s mostly guns, bullets and explosives, and sometimes people and exotic animals like snakes. When there’s no guns people smuggle cigarettes.”
The Israeli army accuses militant factions of organising the smuggling, but it is mostly carried out by families and consortiums for profit. The guns are provided by dealers in Egypt and passed on to dealers in Gaza, who sell on to factions or private customers. Sometimes factions hire a tunnel for a large consignment of weapons.
The tunnellers demand $300 a rifle, which can be sold for up to $2 000 in Gaza. For every bullet, they get $1; a quarter of the Gaza market price. For $6 000 people can also use the tunnels to escape vendettas or police attention. Ahmed estimates there are 80 main tunnels that cross into Egypt and many more tributary tunnels.
For the tunnellers there are many dangers. The tunnels sometimes collapse, especially after winter rainfall. The Israelis destroy buildings they think house tunnel entrances.
Ahmed said that since the Israelis withdrew their forces on the ground in Gaza the Egyptian police had become more aggressive towards tunnellers. When the Egyptians discover a tunnel, he said, they pipe in poison gas, seal the tunnel, and tell the Palestinian Authority police to do the same. He knew of several people who had been killed in this way.
The tunnel being dug by Ahmed and his friends is 170m long but needs clearing again before it will be ready for business. The sandy soil is easy to dig and remove, but each time a tunneller touches the side more sand falls in.
Some are reputed to have air conditioning and mechanical trolleys to move merchandise. Ahmed’s is simpler. The shaft has been strengthened with bricks and sandbags but there is nothing to support its horizontal section. In a few weeks, when the tunnel is ready, Ahmed will offer it for use to weapons dealers on both sides of the border.
Smugglers keep their operations private for fear of Egyptian or Israeli surveillance. If neighbours become aware, their silence is bought. Sometimes neighbours are concerned about the threat of an Israeli air strike and their protests can destroy a project’s viability.
Ahmed hated tunnelling when he first started three years ago, he said. ‘Now I can sleep in the tunnels. Every time it is easier than the last.”—