Gaza, Asharq Al-Awsat – The truck driver did not show much patience as he wholeheartedly sounded his horn when a donkey carriage obstructed his route. As soon as the pathway was cleared, the truck driver moved quickly to park by an area covered by heaps of sand and tents. When the truck came to a stop, a number of people emerged from one of the tents and rushed to load the truck with wooden boxes. After just over an hour, the truck was full and ready to head north.
This is just one of the trucks that transport smuggled goods from Egypt via underground passageways. Once filled, they proceed to the city of Rafah and then Gaza to the storehouses of one of the major tradesmen. The heaps of sand that fill the area are from tunnels that are being dug between the borders linking Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
There are always trucks heading towards the borders to transport goods. Behind the walls of the houses that are situated on the border region, hundreds of individuals dig these tunnels using generators and pulley mechanisms to remove sand. These tunnels are approximately 18 meters deep and no less than one kilometer in length. With the help of the pulleys that are operated by electrical generators, goods are smuggled through these underground passageways from Egypt into the Gaza Strip.
From time to time, somebody would emerge from the tunnel in wet clothes as a result of the humidity in the depth of the tunnel. Salim, 24 years old, digs tunnels for a living and previously worked as builder. He stopped working in the field of reconstruction because of the Israeli siege that has prevented cement and other building materials from entering [the Palestinian Territories]. Salim told Asharq Al-Awsat that in spite of the real dangers to which he is exposed in this line of work, there is no alternative but to work as a tunnel digger to support his family of seven.
Recently, the number of people who have died as a result of the collapse of tunnels has risen significantly. Hamdan, a 35-year-old man who digs tunnels for a living told Asharq Al-Awsat that the number of tunnels increased dramatically as the Israeli blockade intensified after Hamas took over control in the Gaza Strip. He estimated that the number of tunnels now stands at 1100 and indicated that this large number will lead to the collapse of many tunnels. He went on to explain that the kinds of goods that are smuggled through the tunnels include medicine, children’s milk, foodstuffs, spare parts for cars, fuel and clothes. He said that there are over 1400 people working as tunnel diggers and added that individually, they could earn up to US $1900 a month.
Hamdan added that these workers “are putting their lives at risk” due to the possibility of the tunnel collapsing at any moment during the digging process. Moreover, the majority of the tunnels are owned by the families in Rafah where this kind of commerce is considered the only source of income. The owners of the tunnels work in complete coordination with tradesmen who make demands to the tunnel owners for which kind of products are to be smuggled. In fact, some tunnel owners specialize in smuggling certain products. According to some sources, 36 people have been killed so far this year as a result of the collapse of tunnels or electrocution.
Palestinian human rights organizations and members of the legislative council have highlighted that under-age workers, less than 16 years of age, are being used to dig these tunnels, some of whom have died as a result of collapsed tunnels. These minors are being exploited to a large degree as they receive a smaller salary in comparison to adults. According to Asharq Al-Awsat’s observations, and personal testimonies, women do not play any kind of role in the field of tunnel digging. Just as many people in the Gaza Strip have said, tunnel digging has become a way to earn money quickly as tunnel owners buy products from Egypt and elsewhere for a reduced price and sell them on for double the price to Gazans without any accountability or supervision.
In the Gaza Strip, tunnel owners and the Egyptian authorities are accused of causing the collapse of tunnels. A group that calls itself the Association for the Families of Tunnel Victims was formed recently and releases statements from time to time in which it holds Egypt accountable for the deaths of their relatives who have died in tunnels because Egypt closed the Rafah crossing, which has forced Palestinians to resort to using the tunnels. The group has also accused the Egyptian authorities of bombing tunnels that has resulted in the deaths of many tunnel workers.
Members of the legislative council and human rights organizations have held tunnel owners largely accountable for the collapse of tunnels and also hold the government of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh partly responsible for failing to take any necessary measures to prevent any more deaths.
Under pressure from members of the legislative council and Palestinian human rights organizations, the government has taken some measures in this regard. The government made tunnel owners pledge to pay compensation for every tunnel worker who dies as a result of collapses. Tunnel owners also pledged that they would not employ minors and would take the necessary safety precautions.
Khalil Abu Shammala is the director of the Al Dameer Association for Human Rights in Gaza. He strongly criticized the role of Ismail Haniyeh’s government, indicating that despite the necessity of these tunnels in light of the continuing blockade that the Palestinian people are being subjected to, it does not mean that the government can relieve itself of its responsibility towards the people who are being killed in the process of digging tunnels.
Abu Shammala told Asharq Al-Awsat that Haniyeh’s government forced tunnel owners to obtain licenses from the municipality to supply the tunnels with electricity, not a license to dig tunnels as some have claimed. He explained that the municipality supplies tunnels with high voltage electricity.
Abu Shammala indicated that the Haniyeh government forced tunnel owners to pay “insurance” to the municipality of Rafah, which would be given as compensation to any worker who is injured in the process of tunnel digging. According to Abu Shammala, government representatives collect taxes on smuggled goods whereby an official at the entry point of every tunnel takes a tax on every box that emerges from the tunnel. Moreover, the official feels the content of the boxes to make sure that it does not contain drugs.
Asharq Al-Awsat attempted to contact a number of the de facto government officials, particularly Ismail Mahfouz, the Hamas deputy finance minister and Tahir al Nunu, the Hamas spokesperson, to no avail.
Member of the Legislative Council Ismail al Ashqar, who heads the Security Committee told Asharq Al-Awsat that the tunnels are the result of an impossible reality that the Palestinians are enduring in the Gaza Strip under the oppression of the Israeli siege. He stressed that nobody considers the tunnels legal and nobody wants to use them based on this. However, in light of the deadly siege that is being practiced against the Palestinians, people are forced to take these steps to ensure their survival, indicating that it is through these tunnels that basic foodstuffs and medicines enter Gaza. “When a sick person dies because there is no medicine as a result of the siege then from a moral standpoint, it is left to the Palestinian people to find a solution by any means necessary including [the use of] tunnels.”
Al Ashqar asserted that many deaths in the tunnels are caused by explosions carried out by the Egyptian authorities in coordination with the Americans. He added that tunnel owners do not adhere to safety measures and that young people are exploited as they are in need of money due to the high levels of unemployment. They suffer from difficult working conditions in the tunnels.
He indicated that some tunnel owners do not use insulation materials to prevent tunnel collapses. Moreover, the electrical connections are not inspected in the process of the digging, which has caused cases of electrocution leading to deaths. Al Ashqar stated that in spite that the government and government apparatus does not have any ties to the tunnels, the security committee has called for the government to take strict measures to prevent deaths in the future.
On his part, spokesman of the Hamas Interior Ministry Ehab Ghussen stated that the tunnels are a natural reaction to Israeli blockade that is punishing the Palestinian people. He stressed that from a moral standpoint, nobody has the right to ask the Palestinians to stop digging tunnels as they struggle to live through the blockade.
Ghussen called upon the Egyptian authorities to end the explosion operations that target these tunnels carried out by Egyptian authorities and the Americans. He urged the Egyptians not to bow to pressure from the Israelis and Americans.
Ghussen argued that it is within the rights of the Palestinians to take the necessary steps to get through the oppressive siege that America and Israel are imposing upon the Palestinian people with Arab and Palestinian consent. He believes that the digging of tunnels will end as soon as the siege is lifted. Ghussen called upon Arab countries, Egypt in particular, to intervene to end the siege so that there would be no reason to dig these tunnels.
Dr Yahya Musa, a prominent member of the Hamas leadership, stated that anybody who has experienced difficult circumstances such as those that are being endured by the Palestinian people today would have no choice but to dig tunnels in order to provide the basic necessities. Musa highlighted the importance of confronting the phenomenon of employing minors to dig tunnels.
Abu Shammala stated that there is evidence that the Egyptian government overlooks the digging of tunnels and strongly denied that the Egyptian authorities are responsible for the collapse of tunnels. He added that the Egyptian authorities are aware of every tunnel and if Egypt wanted to, it could put a stop to the smuggling simply by stopping goods being transported to the border region rather than closing the tunnels.