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Tunnel Vision

My trip through Gaza's underground smuggling network

"No," Mahmoud says as he gets back into the car, slamming the door. "They don't want. They are afraid."

I had come to Gaza’s border with Egypt to see for myself the infamous underground smuggling tunnels. Active since the 1980s, the number of tunnels has skyrocketed since the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2007. Israel claims the tunnels are used to smuggle arms; their destruction provided much of the rationale for its recent 22-day offensive.

Finding the tunnels proved much easier than I had expected. Together with two other journalists, I hired Mahmoud, who moonlights as translator while co-owning a profitable, albeit somewhat vague, telecommunications company in the Palestinian town of Rafah. His best friend drove us the 15 minutes from Rafah to just outside the Philadelphi corridor, the heavily guarded strip of no-man’s land that separates the two countries. Approximately 70 yards from the border, we hit dozens of tattered white tents, organized row upon row, tens of feet apart. Each tent houses the mouth of a tunnel that snakes beneath the border to Egypt.

Following Mahmoud’s instructions, we wait in the car as he attempts to negotiate an interview for us with one of the tunnel owners. Around us, the flurry of activity is anything but surreptitious. Trucks, heavily laden with unmarked, small white parcels, loiter outside the tents ready to transport goods around the Strip. Tractors push and pull mounds of sand disgorged by bombings, looking to recover lost goods. Some tents have been damaged by the war, but many remain unscathed.

"What are the tents for?" I ask Mahmoud.

"They are to protect from sun and rain," he answers.

"It's not to keep the tunnels secret?"

"The tunnels are not a secret!" he exclaims over the din of generators and the frantic scraping of shovels.

Although Israel claims to have destroyed 60 to 70 percent of the tunnels, and has threatened to resume bombing if they are re-opened, reconstruction and tunnel activity are barely concealed in the broad daylight. Some men even dig holes in the sand without tents to disguise their mission. But each one approached by Mahmoud seems too nervous, or too busy, to talk to us.

After about 30 minutes of fruitless negotiations, all three of us pile out of the car to take matters into our own hands. With some staccato discussion, gestures, and smiles, Jamil el-Masri, a self-proclaimed tunnel owner, allows us to step into his tent with the promise that we not photograph anything. Approximately 25 square feet, the tent's interior is neat and clean, with a few small mattresses strewn along the sand floor, and sweaters and jackets hanging in a row on nails. Orderly piles of the newly smuggled parcels are stacked in one corner. In the opposite corner, I catch my first glimpse of a tunnel.

The wood-lined passageway comes up three feet out of the ground. A generator-powered pulley is suspended over the foreboding opening to hoist the goods. The tunnel descends almost 40 feet into the ground and runs over 650 feet across the border before opening near a farm on the Egyptian side, Jamil boasts. It took 15 men three months to construct, he tells us proudly, costing $70,000. Finished right before the Israeli incursion this month, it escaped damage and has only begun operating since the ceasefire; many others kept their tunnels open during the bombardment.

Jamil tells us he brings in everything, from toys and food to cooking oil. Everything except weapons, he quickly corrects himself. The Egyptians on the other side get half the cut, he says. He opens a few parcels, showing us today's shipment. Small, pink plastic dolls, boxes of generators--he seems genuinely surprised by every package he opens, his round face lighting up with visions of his keep.

Standing above the opening, I look down, my head spinning from the vertigo. Jagged wooden planks resembling a ladder descend into the shaft. At the bottom, a dark outline of a man is illuminated each time he takes a pull of his cigarette. A string of small white lights runs down one side.

I ask Jamil if I can climb down. My request is met with laughter and a chorus of "Nos!" from the tunnel workers. I press on; I am the only one in the group who wants to descend. After a few minutes of persistence, Jamil relents, shaking his head, and asks if I would prefer to climb or be lowered by the pulley. I can't tell if he's teasing, but choose to climb, asking half-jokingly if I can use the pulley as a support grip.

Jamil tells one of his workers to guide me. Ahmed, about 30, with curly hair and matching denim pants and jacket, effortlessly scrambles down. Mahmoud follows him, suddenly protective of me. I begin to think of excuses to renege as I drop my first wobbly leg into the entry shaft and steel myself for the possibility of a fall.

Hooking my hands and arms onto each rung of the makeshift ladder, I slowly lower one alternating foot at a time. Some steps are too far apart for me to firmly plant my foot before letting go, but it's always only a few inches until my foot catches on the next wood slab. I count nine rungs, willing my breathing to slow, until I lose count. A few steps later, the ladder ends. Unable to look down, I hear Mahmoud shout for me to place my feet in grooves carved inside the earthen wall.

"Right foot!" he bellows. "Left!" Until finally, I drop into the tunnel.

The air is warm and fragrant with earth and sweat. The clean, unfinished wooden planks reinforcing the sides and ceiling remind me of Ikea furniture. A small string of tiny lights runs along the right side of the wall like an airplane aisle, illuminating the straight path ahead.

The tunnel is about three by three feet, so I shuffle along on my hands and feet. Ahmed, taking the lead, moves expertly along the tunnel. Mahmoud follows him. The tunnel feels safe and inviting; the only sounds are our muffled breathing and the sand crunching beneath our feet.

We crawl 50 feet along the tunnel and stop as Ahmed turns to explain to me that the lights run all the way to Egypt. "Are you ever afraid?" I ask. "No,” he says, his awkward grin barely noticeable in the dim orange light.

Another worker drops into the tunnel and rummages toward us pushing a blue plastic oil drum, his knees scraping along the sand. The drums are the improvised crates used to transport goods--cut open on one side, pushed and pulled by wires and ropes along the ground. Mahmoud tells me it's time to go, just in time for me to realize I'm alone, 40 feet under the earth, with three men. We turn and shuffle back the way we came.

The way up is easier than the way down; I hug the wood and lift my legs. I emerge, blinking, into the bright tent to laughter and grinning. As we depart, Jamil explains that, despite Israeli threats and potential dangers, he will not stop smuggling. The goods are essential, he says wryly, and the money too good.

Mahmoud laters explains that the tunnel industry is not only profitable, but regulated. Aspiring proprietors must apply for a tunnel license at the Rafah Municipal Council. Tunnel permits are issued for $6,000, which can be paid in instalments, and an additional fee of $2,500 for electricity. Despite past attempts to close the tunnels by flooding or gassing them from the Egyptian side, smugglers are not deterred.

Mahmoud smiles when I ask if Hamas has made any efforts to close the tunnels. “No, of course. Everybody in the whole world knows that Hamas is supporting the tunnels,” he answers, exasperated. Upon further contemplation, he tells me Hamas has closed tunnels in the past, but only those smuggling cocaine. “Egyptians support the tunnels too,” he adds. “They facilitate the entry of goods from Cairo to Sinai.”

Outside Jamil’s tent, we are stopped almost immediately by a group of young men intent upon showing us another tunnel. “Come, come!” They lead us to a group of men digging a new hole--an alternative opening for a tunnel whose original entrance has caved in with sand. The new entry shaft is only 10 feet away from the last. Digging anew, the workers are hoping to strike the same tunnel to salvage it. A drum full of light bulbs--presumably the last haul before the collapse--stands next to the half-completed new hole, basking in the sunlight. Rumors of incoming foreign aid trucks waiting to cross the border have caused anxiety among the workers--quickening their already frantic activities. We walk to the old opening and examine the damage while a man gleefully chronicles all the items regularly coming through the tunnel.

“Chipsy [a popular Egyptian potato chip brand], biscuits, Glaxy chocolate bars,” he lists on his fingers. “No weapon! No weapon!” he repeats adamantly. A boy in his late teens climbs down into the crater to be photographed. Posing for the camera, his hand is raised in the “V” for victory symbol.

Suddenly, a group of angry men converge upon us, pointing at my camera, and Mahmoud suggests we leave. Driving back into Rafah, he points out the remains of bombed buildings, differentiating between which had been struck in this war and which were remnants of past attempts to thwart the smuggling. “This building had one tunnel … that building had one … and that,” he says, punctuating our journey back to Rafah.

Back at Mahmoud’s house, which he shares with over 20 members of his family, we sit on the floor of his living room sipping tea next to two heavily wired computers, which make up the base of his telecommunications company. “We could have a tunnel here,” he says, pointing to the empty space in the middle of the room. “It would be very profitable!” he chuckles.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Oh, too far from the border,” he says.

Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo, Egypt.