Tuesday 3 March 2009


A Palestinian man smuggles a goat via tunnel from Egypt to Rafah.

By: Sameh A. Habeeb and Janet Zimmerman
February 8, 2009

Lucky we were to have fled imminent death as more than fifteen F-16 rockets bombarded the tunnels area where we had lit a fire the previous night to drink tea and talk about life in the tunnels. Many houses were partially destroyed due to the heavy bombardments, but no casualties were reported.

South of the Gaza Strip, a very strange phenomena is taking place. People are racing time, using primitive ways to get food and achieve a good life. The people in the Gaza Strip, the most densely populated area in the world, are forced to face death in order to attain life's basic necessities. This is against all humanitarian laws, BUT the rights of these laws were stripped from the Gazans by Israel. Border crossings were closed as a tightened siege was imposed two years ago.

Consequently, a complete paralysis hit the agricultural, medical, economical, and all sectors of life. People were trapped in a large concentration camp called Gaza, and they are still, where no one is allowed to get in or to get out. Students are deprived from their education abroad. Three hundred patients died due to the inability to travel for treatment, while some others died due to lack of medicine altogether. This does not include, of course, the thousands injured during the last holocaust.

There is no gas for heating, and power cuts are frequent. The Gazans were pushed to use alternatives to get life back after the Israelis robbed them of basic necessities. The alternatives were an amalgamation of fear, freedom, death, and life. They started to dig tunnels that linked Gaza with Egypt in order to bring what Israel had made taboo for the Palestinians.

Tunnel smugglers bring in food, medicine, milk and supplies in sacks.

In the sixties and seventies, some tunnels had already been excavated for the smuggling of jewelry and food, and this trade flourished when Hamas came into power in mid-2007. Now more than two thousand tunnels have been dug through the borders to reach Egypt, each varying from 100 to 1,200 meters.

Thousands of people began to work as daily laborers in order to bring sweets, animals, flowers; basic things, for without these tunnels people would be starving and would have nothing. Ultimately, they are used to drag food into the Palestinian side because these people are trapped inside Gaza as the crossings are closed. These tunnels are their source of life. On the contrary, working in them automatically makes them an associate with tragedy, and it is a frequent visitor. It is a hazardous operation where more than one hundred out of these thousands of laborers died, and they are still dying. The tunnels were especially targeted by the Israelis.

After forty-five minutes night began to fall and we were not yet able to accomplish our mission, which was to discover the mysterious motives behind this labyrinth of tunnels. Finally we managed to meet Abu Rani, a twenty-one year old and the breadwinner of his family of eleven. His house was bombed during the war and he has no source of income. He stopped working in the tunnels out of fear, as they had taken the life of both his father and his brother. "I became crazy!" he said. "I have nothing but God to help me."

A young smuggler is lowered down to make the dangerous crawl into Egypt.

In the background, there was a busy area in which bulldozers were digging back the tunnels that were destroyed by the Israelis F-16s that had raided thousands of tons of explosions on the area. The bombing not only resulted in the destruction of these tunnels, but many houses neighboring them. Many people were gathered at sunset to watch the bulldozer, and we learned that one of the tunnels had just collapsed on five individuals. We saw the red lights flashing as the sirens roared past us. After three hours and many attempts, the paramedics were fortunately able to retrieve all of the victims of the collapse alive. However, they were in critical condition due to being buried beneath twenty-three meters of sand and nearly suffocating.

It then took thirty minutes for Abu Rani to drive us to meet Abu Jehad. He gave us valuable information about how the tunnels were built and how food was brought over from Egypt. According to Abu Jehad, building a tunnel takes two to four months in which more than ten people work for more than ten hours a day in the digging process. The laborers dig using shovels and hammers, and each of them risks his life for one hundred dollars a day.

"These tunnels are deadly and dangerous, but we have no choice but to work in them. We are jobless, and it's good money. I used to work in Israel years ago, but was kicked out and turned jobless because I was Palestinian," Abu Jehad explained. "Two years ago I turned to work in these tunnels, despite not agreeing with them. I know it is a journey towards death to bring food, but we have to remain alive as Israel deprives us the basics of life. Within the war, Israel destroyed most of these tunnels and did not allow everything in the Gaza Strip, but here we are trying to dig again in order to bring life."

Israel claims that these tunnels were used for the smuggling of weapons, but what we have documented and witnessed is that most of the tunnels are being used for food and necessities prevented to go through Israeli crossings and into Gaza. A few Palestinian militants do smuggle light weapons, however these light weapons cannot stand against Israeli military high-tech.

Access to food, freedom of movement, and a just life is being guaranteed by all humanitarian charters. Collective punishment is prohibited and sometimes can be considered as a war crime when it comes to depriving people of food. Israel violates these charters flagrantly as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and all organizations working in occupied Palestine said. Israel defends itself by saying that they allow everything into Gaza, however, hunger still prevails as Israel only allows limited food supply into the Gaza Strip. Less than one hundred vans are permitted, despite that it was seven hundred before the siege. At the end of the day, what Israel says goes, and the Palestinians are still suffering.

(Barbara Notes: As you will see in this short film, this is dangerous, strenuous labour, not for those suffering from claustrophobia. There is always chance of collapse or bombing to be taken into consideration. Surely only the most desperate of people would undertake such work.
RAFAH, Gaza Strip ~ The monkeys and lions were drugged, tossed into cloth sacks and dragged through smuggling tunnels under the border between Egypt and the besieged Gaza Strip before ending up in a dusty Gaza zoo. Stocked almost entirely with smuggled animals, the "Heaven of Birds and Animals Zoo" is a sign of Gaza's ever-expanding tunnel industry.

Dozens of passages are believed to snake under the border, serving as a mainstay of the local economy and a way to smuggle in everything from cigarettes to lingerie to automatic weapons. Smugglers say a new effort by Egypt to blow up the passages will have little effect on the flow of goods.

Gaza's commercial trade was literally forced underground after Hamas seized the coastal territory last summer, prompting neighboring Israel and Egypt to restrict movement through commercial crossings. The little allowed through the border passings is not enough to meet Gaza's needs. Tunnel smugglers fill the gaps, bringing in contraband drugs and guns and more mundane items like frilly underwear and laptop computers, as well as exotic animals like the lion and lioness that pace in a cage at the Rafah zoo.

They were purchased as cubs from Egypt for $3,000 each, drugged and dragged through a tunnel in sacks. Zoo manager Shadi Fayiz said he went through a middleman to put in his order. At the small zoo, where umbrellas shade battered couches, there is a parrot who was slipped through a tunnel in a cage. He can ask for a kiss in Arabic, startling veiled Gazan women walking by, Fayiz said.

Two monkeys were bought together as babies. So were three spindly legged gazelles, one of whom bit several tunnel smugglers when they forgot to sedate it, Fayiz said. All told, his animals cost over $40,000. Fayiz opened shop in June.

"Without the tunnels, I couldn't have done this," the 23-year-old said. Egypt, under Israeli pressure, has ratcheted up its efforts in recent weeks to destroy the passages, blasting tunnel entrances on its side. But smugglers say they can easily build new ones.

"You can't kill a snake," said a middleman who goes by Abu Mohammed, referring to the passages by their Gazan slang name, "hayyeh," the Arabic word snake. Like other traders interviewed by The Associated Press, he declined to give his full name, fearing retribution from Egypt and tax demands from Hamas.

Gaza traders come to his office in Rafah with lists of products ~ food, clothes, motor oil. He contacts Egyptian traders to find them, then shops for the cheapest tunnel to haul them through, ensuring a bigger profit.

"Some tunnels want $100 a box, some just $70. You have to compare prices," he said. Such competition in the smuggling market was unthinkable before the Hamas takeover, when there were fewer passages and overland crossings still worked.

Rows of lacy underwear hang in Abu Mohammed's shop, left over from a previous shipment. They were big sellers through the summer, when most Gaza weddings take place. This season, traders are ordering nuts for Ramadan, when the devout fast throughout the day and snack through the night.

Traders estimate around 100 tunnels now run under the border, with the number rising since the Hamas takeover.

Israel has demanded that Egypt block weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel's main concern about the current truce is that Hamas will use it to rearm. Earlier this month, five smugglers were killed when Egypt blew up a tunnel exit, suffocating them inside. An Egyptian border official said authorities destroy about a tunnel a day.

In early August, Egyptian border troops uncovered a 2,400-foot underground pipeline used to smuggle fuel into Gaza. Black market fuel has been a lucrative product in Gaza since Israel began reducing supplies to the territory to pressure militants to halt their fire at Israeli border communities.

Tunnel traders, meanwhile, say Egyptian efforts to destroy tunnels might delay shipments but won't halt them ~ smugglers can quickly dig new tunnel entrances by branching out from the main passage.

It's unlikely overland transport will soon replace the subterranean traffic. Hamas says a full opening of Gaza's border crossings must be part of any truce deal, but Israel refuses until there is progress in talks on the release of an Israeli soldier held by Hamas since 2006.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, says tunnels can't provide a solution to Gaza's woes.

"A tunnel can bring in a mobile phone, but it can't bring in raw materials," such as cement, building materials, gasoline and other fuel, which are all in short supply, said Abu Zuhr. "Because of that Gaza is paralyzed."

But zoo manager Fayiz praises the smugglers' ingenuity. "It's just a matter of time until they make a tunnel an elephant can walk through," he said.

Sis months ago: Palestinian zoo worker Wael Abu Muhammed and visitors play with an ostrich at "Heaven of Birds and Animals Zoo" in Rafah. The zoo is stocked almost entirely with smuggled animals. Dozens of tunnels snake the border and are a mainstay of the local economy, with each passage feeding about 35 families.

Barbara's Note: The Heaven of Birds and Animals Zoo was destroyed during the recent blitz. According to the owner, the soldiers walked through, and just shot every animals that moved. Only one lion survived the attack but the owner swears to rebuild.

The tunnel system was badly destroyed, but is rapidly being replaced due to the incredible need for materials for the people of Palestine.

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