“Complimentary tour of the Rafah tunnels.” I received this offer a few weeks after arriving in Gaza. In a conversation I was having with my colleague, Joe Catron, it came up that a friend of ours from Gaza City had given an open invitation for us to tour the tunnels. For the purpose of this article we’ll refer to her as “X”.
After reading about much of the controversy of the tunnels and the political obstacles they have posed for Hamas since officially taking over operations in 2007, I jumped at the proposition.
Actually managing to get into the tunnels was not such an easy task and ended up taking Joe and I two separate attempts. Our first venture to Rafah was with X, who had initially invited us. Our other colleague from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) joined us and brought a friend of hers who was visiting Gaza from Egypt but was not officially affiliated with the ISM.
On our first trip, when we arrived in Rafah and approached the tunnels, a few of us were able to snap some photos of the outside of the tunnels before having our car stopped by Hamas security. The guard first asked for our cameras. I was ready to remove my memory card and forfeit the camera, as was the other girl from the ISM; however, her friend was very reluctant and did not want to hand hers over to him. Our tour guide tried to explain that we were with the ISM and could be trusted, but this was ineffective. The guard grew agitated and took down the license plate number and colour of our vehicle. His reaction was completely reasonable given the fact that we were a group of foreigners attempting to enter a high security area, some of us with cameras in hand. Joe and I were quite upset with our guest’s behaviour. The driver tried to leave the area but the guard followed us by motorcycle and stopped us again. This time he asked for the car driver’s ID, who was a third party, completely unrelated to the organisation of the trip. Our tour guide tried to give the man her ID instead but he refused to take it, insisting on having the driver’s ID. The guard returned the man’s card to him and we abandoned the idea for the rest of the day.
After this initial failure, Joe and I arranged a separate trip through a different friend of ours who had a contact in Rafah that used to work in the tunnels. This contact was our tour guide for our second visit to the tunnels. We’ll call him “Y”. On our second trip to Rafah, after our run- in with the Hamas official a few days before, Joe and I decided to employ some “colour-coding”. Joe wore a green Hamas baseball cap and I wore a green and white Hamas keffiyeh. This seemed to work to our advantage as our tour guide remarked after about an hour of touring the tunnels that it was “amazing no one has asked us any questions, I usually get asked lots of questions when I come here with foreigners”. The only point at which we were stopped was when we were walking to the last tunnel that Y wanted to show us, the tunnel he used to work in. A guard that spotted us walking towards this particular tunnel stopped us and asked to see our passports, thinking that we were actually trying to cross into Egypt. Our guide explained to him that we just wanted to see it for a minute and the Hamas officer laughed and let us pass.
We visited two different tunnel zones. On the first one, the Egyptian side of the border is visible and the tunnels in this area are short, on average ranging a distance of only 10 to 50 metres before reaching the Egyptian side. We visited two working tunnels in this area and one that was still being built. There are different types of tunnels, most of them are well-like structures that are 10 to 30 metres deep. Men and goods are hoisted up and down the shaft by a cable with a rope seat that is run by a small motor. If there is no electricity the lift cannot run. One of the many dangers involved in working in the tunnels is that the electricity may cut while someone or something is on the lift. Once inside the well-like tunnels it is extremely hot and there is a palette system running on a similar motorised cable as the lift that carries things through the tunnel. We visited two tunnels that were like this. The first one was being run by two teenage boys. I spoke briefly with the owner-operator of the second tunnel who was a middle-aged man. He told me a little bit about himself and how he became involved in the tunnel business. Before Operation Cast Lead, he was working with NGOs in Gaza City. After the economy took a downward turn he bought this tunnel with a partner for $50,000. When his tunnel first opened he was making $500 to $600 per day. These days he finds it hard to make this much money over the course of an entire month.
The tunnels have been and can be very lucrative; however, there is no doubt that the work is dangerous. Israelis target the tunnels with rocket attacks. This was especially true during Operation Cast Lead. There are also dangers of rocket attacks after crossing into the Egyptian side. The heat and the risk of injury on the lift and the possibility that a tunnel may collapse are also problematic.
Our guide, Y, shared some of his personal knowledge of the tunnels since working in one of them four years ago. The first tunnel opened in 1999 and tunnels used to be built under houses. Now they’re mostly built outside. Today there are thousands of tunnels. Y estimates close to 6,000 and there are still more being dug. Somewhere between 30-40,000 people are employed directly by the tunnels. In every home and every building in Gaza you fill find something that was brought through the tunnels, and anything found in stores that does not have Hebrew writing on it (typically Turkish or Egyptian products) has entered Gaza from the tunnels. Without having the option to purchase these other products, the Israeli blockade over the passage of goods in and out of Gaza essentially forces the population to help finance their own occupation.
However, Y sees the tunnels as a double-edged sword for Palestinians. He finds the risk to Palestinian lives and the number of people who have died while building and working in the tunnels to be a problem, but admits that people have become better at dealing with safety issues over time. He also believes the tunnels are dangerous for bringing things into Gaza that, according to him, “shouldn’t be here”. After the death of Vittorio Arrigoni, Hamas proved that they are only able to maintain partial control of the tunnels. The tunnel area was supposed to have been “completely shutdown”, in order to prevent Vittorio’s killers from leaving. Y said that the streets were crowded and chaotic and the security measures consisted of checking people’s IDs before allowing them to pass. He mentioned specifically weapons, alcohol and other drugs. Despite these problems, the tunnels are necessary to survival.
The last tunnel we visited was further from the border. This was the tunnel that Y used to work in and was different from the well-style tunnels as it was not as deep and was wider. A large palette of Doritos had just arrived. This tunnel was just large enough for one or two people to crawl through side- by-side, but there are some larger tunnels that have been built recently to transport cars and that can fit four adults walking upright and side-by-side.
Risks and reputation aside, the tunnels seem to be functioning as an important economic mechanism in Gaza, providing for all sectors imaginable. Without the tunnels the people of Gaza are entirely subject to the will of Israel, which has both economic and social-psychological consequences. As Hassan Zeyada of the Gaza City Mental Health Centre said to me in conversation, “When living in a prison, the guards may decide after good behaviour that you can have more clothes, more food, maybe a television, but it’s still a prison. A prison is a prison even if you make it into a five-star hotel.”
Alexandra Robinson writes for Al-Ahram Weekly, where this essay originally appeared.