Colin Freeman
The Telegraph
September 26, 2008 - 8:00pm

With several tonnes of the world's most war-torn soil between us, the shouts of the Palestinian smuggling gang at the top of the tunnel's 30-foot deep shaft had become almost inaudible.

Not that their lead tunneller had whispered particularly encouraging words as he lowered me down.

"The tunnels are very dangerous - they can easily collapse," smiled Ibrahim Abu Sazzar, 23, whose small, wiry build is just right for digging the 300 yard long passageways underneath the sandy border from the Gaza to Egypt.

"One time a day a tunnel caved in on my body and I was stuck for an hour, thinking I was about to die. But what can I do - I need the money to feed my family."

Welcome, if that is the word, to Gaza's "Tunnel Town", where with every perilous scoop of earth they dig, human moles like Mr Sazzar are quite literally undermining Israel's economic blockade.

Imposed last year after Gaza fell under the control of the militant Palestinian faction Hamas, the blockade was designed to make Hamas unpopular with Gaza's 1.4 million residents by banning virtually all trade with the outside world.

But deep beneath the watchtowers and fences of Gaza's 10-mile long border with Egypt, a sprawling warren of hand-dug burrows now supplies everything from food, petrol and designer jeans through to guns, drugs and black market Marlboro cigarettes.

Tunnel gangs charge premiums of up to 150 per cent on their cargos, raking in tens of thousands of dollars a week and making the excavation business one of Gaza's few growth industries.

"We bring through laptops, clothes, computers, medicines, mobile phones and even people," said Hisham al Loukh, 23, another tunneller. "There was even a bride from Egypt who came through one recently to get married to a man in Gaza."

The first tunnels underneath Gaza's perimeters were dug years ago, when they were they were primarily to smuggle weapons and explosives for use against Israel.

But it is during the blockade of the past year that the tunnellers' hazardous craft has really come to the fore. On some estimates there are now up to 500 passageways across to Egypt, mostly clustered around the town of Rafah, which straddles the border.

The tunnels usually surface in the gardens of villas on the Egyptian side of Rafah, where many residents are either sympathetic to the Palestinian cause or willing to lend their properties in return for a share of the lucrative profits.

Each member of a tunnelling gang, usually working in day and night shifts of 10 men each, earns around $15 per metre of passageway dug, which counts as a decent wage in an area which currently has 80 per cent unemployment. But as even the briefest of sojourns down into one of the tunnels makes clear, it is a risky living.

Entering one requires perching precariously on a makeshift wooden chairlift, which is then lowered down the 30 foot deep shaft by a winch powered by a sputtering petrol generator.

As in the Second World War film classic The Great Escape, the tunnel's walls are propped up with makeshift wooden planks, and equipped with ventilation pumps to freshen the musty, damp air at the bottom.

Diggers then use small electric drills to carve a path through the thick clay soil, steering their way by hand-held compass.

But otherwise, the engineering expertise has advanced little since the days of Tom, Dick and Harry. Tunnel collapses have led to dozens of fatalaties - so many that some local shops honour tunnellers in the same fashion as "martyred" local militants, displaying pictures of them clutching spades and drills rather than assault rifles.

The threat is not just from earthfalls. The Egyptian government, which has traditionally turned a blind eye to the tunnels because of historic sympathy for Gaza's Palestinian residents, is now under growing pressure from both Israel and the US to shut them down, and in recent months Egyptian border guards have started dynamiting any entrances that they discover.

"They also pump in water, poison gas, and even sewage," said Mr Sazzar. "But they do not stop us. If part of one tunnel gets blocked, we just dig a new branch in a different direction."

On the Gaza side, little effort is made to hide the tunnels, which lurk under a network of tents and jerry-built shacks along the border.

Israel, which withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005, has occasionally sent warplanes to bomb the passageways, but has not done so since striking a cease-fire deal with Hamas three months ago.

Hamas itself used to impose strict controls on the tunnels' numbers, but has allowed them to proliferate in recent months, mindful that too much economic privation will dent its already wavering popularity with Gaza's impoverished residents.

There are also rumours that Hamas rakes in millions of dollars by imposing an unofficial "tax" on all tunnelled goods, although Dr Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor in Hamas's foreign ministry, denies such claims.

"The tunnels have become a necessity with everybody tightening the rope around our necks," he said. "It is a safety valve to make goods available, because we cannot get them from Israel."

Tunnel entrepreneurs are now enjoying such good business, however, that they now have a vested interest in the status quo.

In recent months a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has raised hopes that the economic blockade might be eased, but some in Gaza fear that should that ever look like happening, local tunnel owners will sabotage it by paying militants to fire rockets into Israel again.

Meanwhile, the list of tunnel "martyrs" continues to grow. The day after The Sunday Telegraph visited, a neighbouring tunnel at Rafah collapsed, killing three people and injuring five others.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017