The siege on Gaza is tightening as the Egyptian government continues construction of an underground steel wall at the Rafah border with Gaza to block the tunnel trade. The tunnels, which journalist Robert Fisk has described as “the lung through which Gaza breathes,” are the only means in which most basic goods like food and medicine reach the besieged population in Gaza. Jody McIntyre spoke with Abu Hanin, a Palestinian laborer from Gaza who works in one of the tunnels at the border with Egypt.
Abu Hanin: My name is Abu Hanin, I am 29 years old, from Rafah, on the Palestinian side, and I work in the tunnels. I am married, with five daughters and one son, and my wife is now pregnant with twins, so after that we’ll be ten overall.
Jody McIntyre: Do you talk to your family before you go out to work?
AH: They say to me every morning, “We hope you come back safe and sound,” because they know where I am going out to work. When I leave my wife, I see tears in her eyes, and when I get back, I see happiness. It’s like going out to fight a war, every day.
JM: Why are you working in the tunnels?
AH: Because of the dire situation this is the only work here. There is no way to live but from the tunnels. Every day you leave your home, without guaranteeing that you’ll be back. You’re working while being surrounded by death … you are digging your tomb with your own hands.
JM: How are the tunnels built?
AH: They are all built with our own hands. The tunnels range from 7 to 35 meters in depth. After you dig down, you draw your line to Egypt. You determine the width, usually one to three meters, and the distances, usually a kilometer but sometimes 200 to 300 meters … however you like, you can build it!
JM: What goods do you bring in through the tunnels?
AH: Anything you want, we can bring to the Gaza Strip. Everyone knows about the smuggling that happens here; we smuggle animals, water, cars … and even people, for example, if someone wants to come to get married. I’m serious!
Most of the goods come from al-Arish. You are deemed as a “smuggler” — you are not working at [Israeli-controlled] Erez or Karni crossing, so you are not an official worker, you are a smuggler. So the people in al-Arish bring the goods to the entrance of the tunnel on the Egyptian side, quickly sneak them in, and we bring them over to Gaza.
The tunnels for the cars are so expensive to build, because it has to be three meters wide, [and as tall] as if you are walking in a room. Imagine that you are walking in a room, that is 1.5 kilometers under the ground, and then imagine how much that costs to build.
You may be shocked, but we have brought in camels. Imagine the size of a camel! We put the animal on a sled-like contraption, and it rides into the tunnel down a slope. We have lamps in the tunnel, and every time we turn a lamp off, the animal will walk forward towards the next light, until it reaches the well at the other end. Then we handcuff the animal, and bring it up — this part really is quite perilous … people have lost their legs. Donkeys are the most lethal.
JM: How many tunnels are there overall?
AH: It’s difficult to know exactly … but I’d say around 1,250. It’s funny to think that every stride you take around here, there are different tunnels underneath you!
JM: Isn’t it dangerous to have so many clustered together?
AH: No, on the contrary, it can work to our advantage, because if any sand collapses, we can cross over into a neighboring tunnel. If people get stuck in their tunnel, we can dig across into another tunnel and help them out, otherwise they would suffocate from lack of oxygen. We have learned that oxygen stays for 12 hours in the soil, so after that has passed you need to get out.
JM: What equipment do you have in the tunnels?
AH: We have electricity. Oxygen, we don’t care about so much — now, we are so used to being suffocated all the time, that we don’t like to be up in the open air! We prefer to spend most of our time down in the tunnels. We also have an intercom system so that we can talk with each other, lamps so that we can see and water, tea and instant coffee to drink … it’s like a whole different life under the ground.
JM: Apparently, before the siege of Gaza was tightened in 2006, wages were higher for tunnel laborers?
AH: Yes, that is true. Wages for tunnel laborers have dropped by a third. Now, there is more demand, more tunnels and more laborers. There were tens of tunnels, now there are hundreds, and on top of that thousands of laborers. We work in two shifts, each tunnel needs around 30 workers for the day shift, and another 30 for the night. One shift to take the goods down on one side, and one to drag them up at the other side.
JM: The work must take a lot of energy, so how do the older laborers cope?
AH: All the guys over 35 years of age work at the surface of the tunnels, to collect the goods and transfer them to the vehicles. But underground you need to have young, agile guys. The exit of the tunnel in Egypt is like a bomb; you have to open the trap door, quickly get all the goods in and then close the door as quickly as possible, because if the police see us it would be a complete disaster.
JM: How many people have died working in the tunnels?
AH: Many people have died … every month there are more casualties in the tunnels from Israeli air strikes. We are dealing with fear like a nightmare, a nightmare that rains down on you 24 hours a day. Every day you are working in the tunnels, you are wondering if you will get out alive. Many times the sand has collapsed … death is inevitable from this kind of work.
JM: Is the Egyptian government pressurizing you by building the steel wall?
AH: Of course, but our guys can find a solution. Nothing will prevent us … this is our only source of life!
JM: How will the steel wall affect the tunnels?
AH: The Egyptians are digging underground in order to establish this steel wall. After digging, they pour sand, and then pour iron, making a structure 28 meters in length … it’s the same structures that the Israelis previously built in Gaza. It consists of layers, layer after layer, until it is fixed in the ground. However, the tunnels are not a new project, and many are still not affected, some old men have built cities under this ground.
The thing we are afraid of now is that the Egyptians will supply the iron with electricity, making a lethal electric fence, and add sensors to flood the land below, which would make our mission impossible. The Egyptians are more clever than the Americans and Israelis put together … in order to satisfy them, they will destroy 50 kilometers of land to establish this “electric water pool!”
JM: Will it be easy to penetrate the steel wall?
AH: God willing, because the tunnels were dug by the hands of our ancestors, not us. If they could build these tunnels with their bare hands, then we will not be stopped be a steel wall, we will cut down the wall! Even if they put water, electricity, even if they put human beings down there to stop our tunnels, we will evade them! You know why? Because this is our only source of life left.
JM: Have the tunnels been beneficial for Egyptians?
AH: Very much so … I went there with the owner of this tunnel, and the laborers from Egypt take home $1,000 dollars. Imagine a normal Egyptian makes 5-10 pounds ($1-2) a day from work, and the tunnel workers are making 550 pounds a day. To them it is unbelievable, the tunnels have made them rich. The factories, the shopkeepers … they have all benefited from the tunnels.
There are 80 million Egyptians and we are only 1.5 million, but we have greatly influenced their economy because there is such a high rate of unemployment in Egypt, and each tunnel creates 30 to 50 new jobs.
JM: Would you ever leave this job for alternative employment?
AH: Now, frankly, no. Even if the wages dropped, the tunnel work is in our blood now. Even if there is no work we still go down into the tunnels. We get accustomed to this life.
JM: How do you see your future?
AH: I don’t have a future. As it is, there is no future in Gaza. I go across the entire width of Gaza on my motorcycle in 20 minutes. How can you see a future from within a box of matches? I take my sons from the house to school and back … they are so fed up. We will live and die with the same routine. There are some people who feel afraid of working in the tunnels, so they only have the walls of their home and their UNRWA [the UN agency for Palestine refugees] card to protect them. This is Gaza.
Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom. He writes a blog entitled “Life on Wheels” which can be found at jodymcintyre.wordpress.com. He can be reached at jody [dot] mcintyre [at] gmail [dot] com.