Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”
At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed, and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.
Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open, and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.”
For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank Palthink.
Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”
That has all changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.
The Egyptian military destroyed over 1,000 tunnels. Abu Mohamed sighs as he remembers the operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denies that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”
Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that economist Omar describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.
Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.
The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.
“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”
The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.
“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”
The entrance to his tunnel, which measures 1.5 meters high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.
Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than one meter, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.
“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness, he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”
Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks, and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”