This story appears in the December 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Editor’s note: As this issue went to press, the conflict in Gaza escalated. Hamas and other groups stepped up rocket fire on Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces launched an air and sea assault on Gaza, targeting the Hamas leadership and sites containing rockets and other weapons, along with civil government and media offices. Israel also extensively bombed the smuggling tunnels in Rafah.
For as long as they worked in the smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza Strip, Samir and his brother Yussef suspected they might one day die in them. When Yussef did die, on a cold night in 2011, his end came much as they’d imagined it might, under a crushing hail of earth.
It was about 9 p.m., and the brothers were on a night shift doing maintenance on the tunnel, which, like many of its kind—and there are hundreds stretching between Gaza and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—was lethally shoddy in its construction. Nearly a hundred feet below Rafah, Gaza’s southernmost city, Samir was working close to the entrance, while Yussef and two co-workers, Kareem and Khamis, were near the middle of the tunnel. They were trying to wedge a piece of plywood into the wall to shore it up when it began collapsing. Kareem pulled Khamis out of the way, as Yussef leaped in the other direction. For a moment the surge of soil and rocks stopped, and seeing that his friends were safe, Yussef yelled out to them, “Alhamdulillah!—Thank Allah!”
Then the tunnel gave way again, and Yussef disappeared.
Samir heard the crashing sounds over the radio system. He took off into the tunnel, running at first and then, as the opening got narrower and lower, crawling. He had to fight not to faint as the air became clouded with dust. It was nearly pitch black when he finally found Kareem and Khamis digging furiously with their hands. So Samir started digging. The tunnel began collapsing again. A concrete-block pillar slashed Kareem’s arm. “We didn’t know what to do. We felt helpless,” Samir told me.
After three hours of digging, they uncovered a blue tracksuit pant leg. “We tried to keep Samir from seeing Yussef, but he refused to turn away,” Khamis told me. Screaming and crying, Samir frantically tore the rocks off his brother. “I was moving but unconscious,” he said. Yussef’s chest was swollen, his head fractured and bruised. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth. They dragged him to the entrance shaft on the Gazan side, strapped his limp body into a harness, and workers at the surface pulled him up. There wasn’t room for Samir in the car that sped his brother to Rafah’s only hospital, so he raced behind on a bicycle. “I knew my brother was dead,” he said.
I was sitting with Samir, 26, in what passed for Yussef’s funeral parlor, an unfinished-concrete room on the ground floor of the apartment block in the Jabalia refugee camp where the brothers grew up. Outside, in a trash-strewn alley, was a canvas tent that shaded the many mourners who had come to pay their respects over the previous three days. The setting was a typical Gazan tableau: concrete-block walls pocked by gunfire and shrapnel from Israeli incursions and the bloodletting of local factions, children digging in the dirt with kitchen spoons, hand-cranked generators thrumming—yet another Gaza power outage—their diesel exhaust filling the air.
“I was so scared,” Samir said, referring to the day in 2008 when he joined Yussef to work in the tunnels. “I didn’t want to, but I had no choice.” Thin, dressed in sweatpants, a brown sweater, dark socks, and open-toe sandals, Samir was nervous and fidgety. Like the others in the room, he was chain-smoking. “You can die at any moment,” he said. Some of the tunnels Yussef and Samir worked in were properly maintained— well built, ventilated—but many more were not. Tunnel collapses are frequent, as are explosions, air strikes, and fires. “We call it tariq al shahada ao tariq al mawt,” Samir said—“a way to paradise or a way to death.”
Everybody, it seemed, had injuries or health problems. Yussef had developed a chronic respiratory illness. Khamis’s leg had been broken in a collapse. Their co-worker Suhail pulled up his shirt to show me an inches-long scar along his spine, a permanent reminder of the low ceilings. “In Rafah,” Samir said, “it felt like a bad omen was present all the time. We always expected something bad to happen.”
In the Gaza Strip today hero status is no longer reserved for the likes of Yasser Arafat and Ahmed Yassin—the late leaders, respectively, of Fatah and the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas—or for Palestinians who’ve died in the fighting that has rocked this wisp of land since its creation 63 years ago. Now tunnel victims like Yussef—28 when he died—are also honored.
“Everybody loved him,” Samir said. He was “so kindhearted.” On the walls of the makeshift funeral parlor hung posters with Koranic verses of sympathy sent by the family that ran the grade school where Yussef had studied, by the imam of his mosque, and by the local functionaries of Gaza’s bitter political rivals: Fatah, the former ruling party, and Hamas, the militant group that now governs the strip. The most prominent poster was from the local mukhtar, a traditional Arab leader. It showed Yussef in a photograph taken five months earlier, on his wedding day. He was wearing a white dress shirt and a pink tie. He had short-cropped hair and eager, gentle eyes. The poster read, “The sons of the mukhtar share condolences with the family in the martyrdom of the hero Yussef.”
The Rafah underground isn’t new—there have been smuggling tunnels here since 1982, when the city was split following the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which left part of it in Gaza and part in Egypt. Back then the tunnel well shafts were dug in home basements. The Israeli military, knowing that the tunnels were used for arms trafficking, began demolishing homes that harbored tunnels, as did some Palestinians who wanted to keep the tunnel economy under their control. When that didn’t end the smuggling, Israel later expanded the demolitions, creating a buffer zone between the border and the city. According to Human Rights Watch, some 1,700 homes were destroyed from 2000 to 2004.
Gaza’s tunnels became imprinted on the Israeli public consciousness in 2006, when a group of Hamas-affiliated militants emerged in Israel near a border crossing and abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit. Shalit became the embodiment of a ceaseless war, his face staring out from roadside billboards much like the faces on martyrdom posters that adorn the walls in Jabalia and the other camps. (He was finally released in a prisoner exchange in the fall of 2011.)
After Hamas won elections in 2006, it and Fatah fought a vicious civil war—which Hamas won the next year, taking control of the Gaza Strip—and Israel introduced an incrementally tightening economic blockade. It closed ports of entry and banned the importation of nearly everything that would have allowed Gazans to live above a subsistence level. Egypt cooperated.
Since Hosni Mubarak’s departure in early 2011, Egyptian officials have expressed remorse for cooperating with Israel. Egypt has reopened the small Rafah border crossing, though it still prevents some Gazans from coming through. Its new president, Mohamed Morsi, who wants to keep Hamas at a distance, has not pledged to help Gaza in a way that many Gazans had hoped he would. In August, after a group of 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed by gunmen in northern Sinai, Egypt temporarily shut down the Rafah crossing and demolished at least 35 tunnels.
After Israel introduced the blockade, smuggling became Gaza’s alternative. Through the tunnels under Rafah came everything from building materials and food to medicine and clothing, from fuel and computers to livestock and cars. Hamas smuggled in weapons. New tunnels were dug by the day—by the hour, it seemed—and new fortunes minted. Families sold their possessions to buy in. Some 15,000 people worked in and around the tunnels at their peak, and they provided ancillary work for tens of thousands more, from engineers and truck drivers to shopkeepers. Today Gaza’s underground economy accounts for two-thirds of consumer goods, and the tunnels are so common that Rafah features them in official brochures.
“We did not choose to use the tunnels,” a government engineer told me. “But it was too hard for us to stand still during the siege and expect war and poverty.” For many Gazans, the tunnels, lethal though they can be, symbolize better things: their native ingenuity, the memory and dream of mobility, and perhaps most significant for a population defined by dispossession, a sense of control over the land. The irony that control must be won by going beneath the land is not lost on Gazans.
The region of Gaza has been fought over—and burrowed under—since long before Israel assumed control of it from Egypt in 1967. In 1457 B.C. Pharaoh Thutmose III overran Gaza while quashing a Canaanite rebellion. He then held a banquet, which he enjoyed so much that he ordered chiseled into the Temple of Amun at Karnak: “Gaza was a flourishing and enchanting city.” Thutmose was followed by Hebrews, Philistines, Persians, Alexander the Great (whose siege of Gaza City required digging beneath its walls), Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Tatars, Mamluks, and Ottomans. Then came Napoleon, the British, Egyptians again, and Israelis, though to this day there is disagreement about whether Gaza would have been considered part of the land the Bible says God promised the Jews. This is partly why expansionist-minded Israelis have focused more intensely on the West Bank than on Gaza; the last Israeli settlement in Gaza was vacated in 2005.
But Gaza is the heart of Palestinian resistance. It’s been the launching area for a campaign, now in its third decade, of kidnappings, suicide bombings, and rocket and mortar assaults on Israel by Gazan militants—much of this sanctioned, if not expressly carried out, by Hamas.
The tunnels supply the government with all the materials used in public works projects, and Hamas taxes everything that comes through them, shutting down operators who don’t pay up. Tunnel revenue is estimated to provide Hamas with as much as $750 million a year. Hamas has also smuggled in cash from exiled leaders and patrons in Syria, Iran, and Qatar that helps keep it afloat.
Samir told me that Hamas leaders and local officials are in business with tunnel operators, protecting them from prosecution when workers like his brother die needlessly. He’s convinced that corruption and bribery are rampant. His friends agreed. “Damn the municipality!” Suhail blurted out as Samir spoke.
In 2010, after Israeli naval commandos attacked a Turkish flotilla off the Gaza coast, to international outrage, Israel said it had relaxed the blockade. But today there is still only one ill-equipped access point for goods, whereas the West Bank has many more. Israel makes it extremely difficult and expensive for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency and other aid agencies—the source of life and livelihood for thousands of the 1.6 million Gazans—to import basic materials for rebuilding projects, such as machinery, fuel, cement, and rebar.
According to a Gazan customs official I spoke with, the spring of 2011 saw imports at their lowest level since the blockade began. And what did get through, he said, was often degraded: used clothing and appliances, junk food, castoff produce. It was impossible “to meet basic needs,” the official said, insisting that the hesar, or siege, as Gazans call it, was crippling them. Even some of Israel’s oldest supporters agreed. British Prime Minister David Cameron lamented that under the blockade, Gaza had come to resemble a “prison camp.”
Photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I made many trips to Rafah’s tunnels. The drive from Gaza City, an hour to the north, afforded a dolorous tour. The aftermath of the civil war and of Israel’s most recent invasion of the strip—Operation Cast Lead in 2008–09—was evident everywhere. Stepping out of our hotel each morning, often after a night torn open by Israeli air strikes on reported militant hideouts, we took in the absurd sight of a five-story elevator shaft standing alone against the skyline, the hotel that had once surrounded it reduced to rubble. The Palestinian Authority’s former security headquarters cowered nearby, a yawning missile hole in its side. Bullet-chewed facades and minarets marked the horizon.
Driving south, we passed Arafat’s bombed-out former compound, littered with rusted vehicles, then proceeded along the coastline, once one of the prettiest on the eastern Mediterranean but now home to the skeletons of seaside cafés and to fetid tide pools. Heading inland, we passed abandoned Israeli settlements, their fields sanded over, their greenhouses lying in tatters. South of Rafah the ruins of the Gaza Airport languished as if in a Claude Lorrain landscape—used only by herders grazing their sheep and Bedouin their camels. Our interpreter, Ayman, told us that after the airport was built, he was so proud of it that he took his family there on weekends for picnics. “Look at the destruction,” he said, shaking his head. “Everything. Everything is ... destructed.” “Destructed” is a favorite malapropism of Ayman’s. It’s apt. “Destroyed” doesn’t quite capture the quality of ruination in Gaza. “Destructed,” with its ring of inordinate purpose, does.
As we arrived in Rafah, life teemed again. A byword for conflict, Gaza is also synonymous in Middle Eastern memory with that other staple of human history, commerce. Armies marching into the desert depended on its gushing wells and fortress walls, but to merchants through the millennia, Gaza was a maritime spur of the spice routes and agricultural trade. Travelers sought out its cheap tobacco and brothels, and even today Israeli chefs covet its strawberries and quail. From the 1960s to the late 1980s, Gaza and Israel enjoyed a symbiotic commercial relationship not unlike that of Mexico and the U.S. Gazan craftsmen and laborers crossed the border every morning to work in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, while Israelis shopped in the tax-free bazaars of Gaza City, Khan Younis, and especially Rafah, which some old Gazans still call Souk al Bahrain: “the market of the two seas.” The first intifada, which lasted from 1987 to 1993, put an end to much of that.
Passing a jammed intersection overlooked by a Hamas billboard showing a masked militant wielding a bazooka, we entered the Rafah market. The din and fumes of generators commingled with the shouts of vendors, the braying of donkeys, and the sweet smoke of shawarma spits. Block after block of shops and stands sold consumer items, much of which had come through the tunnels.
It’s no secret that Gaza’s tunnel operators are brazen, the more so since the Arab Spring began. Just how brazen was not apparent until we emerged from the market, and an expanse of white tarpaulin tent roofs opened up before us. It stretched along the border wall in both directions, tent after tent as far as the eye could see. Beneath each was a tunnel. They were all in the so-called Philadelphi route, the patrol zone created by the Israeli military as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. All were in full view of Egyptian surveillance towers and sniper nests.
Unable to hide my astonishment, I exclaimed to no one in particular, “This must be the biggest smuggling operation on Earth.”
Every few hundred yards bored-looking cops barely out of adolescence sat outside tents and shacks, AK-47s on their knees. Hamas forbids journalists here, so we drove to the farthest end of the corridor and parked behind a dirt hill. Furtively, we walked into the first tent we saw. There we met Mahmoud, a man in his 50s who used to work on a farm in Israel. He lost his job when the border was closed during the second intifada, so he and a group of partners pooled their savings. In 2006 they started digging, and a year later they had a tunnel.
After nervous negotiations with Ayman, Mahmoud agreed to show me how it worked. “Come here,” he said, leading me to the well shaft. Suspended over it was a crossbar with a pulley, from which hung the harness for lifting and lowering goods and workers. The harness was attached to a spool of metal cable on a winch that could lower a worker the 60 or so feet down the shaft to the tunnel opening. Mahmoud’s tunnel was about 400 yards long, but some can extend half a mile. On this day boxes of clothing, mobile phones, sugar, and detergent were coming in; the day before it had been four tons of wheat. Mahmoud earned anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars a shipment, depending on what he brought in. Like many tunnel operators, he made enough to keep his tunnel open and support his family but not much more.
Five to 12 men work in 12-hour shifts, day and night, six days a week, and Mahmoud communicated with them via a two-way radio that had receivers throughout the tunnel. The men earned around $50 a shift but sometimes went weeks or months between payments. On the dirt floor beneath the tarpaulin were dusty cushions where they could rest after a shift. There was also a charred black kettle on the remnants of a wood fire, a strand of prayer beads, and stacks of halved plastic jerricans, the ad hoc sleds that are used to move goods along the tunnel floor.
“Would you like to go down?” Mahmoud asked. Before I could say no, I said yes. Moments later his men were enthusiastically strapping me into the harness and lowering me into the cool, dank well. I tried to imagine what it would be like if this were my daily routine, going to work by descending six stories into the earth at the end of a cable. At the bottom it was chaotic: dim lightbulbs flickering, radio traffic blaring, dust-covered workers hauling sacks out of the sleds. The mouth of the tunnel was large enough to accommodate several stooping men, but it soon became so narrow that I had to crouch, my shoulders scraping the walls.
When I got back to the surface, a group of police suddenly appeared. They had seen our car. “You shouldn’t be here,” their leader said. Ayman apologized, and soon the officer was regaling me with his account of uncovering a load of cocaine and hashish at a tunnel the day before. Smuggling drugs is lucrative but very risky. They arrested the operator, the officer said, and the well was filled in. He then ordered Paolo and me to go, saying we’d have to get permission from the central government in Gaza City if we intended to come back. “Don’t go into the tunnels,” another cop warned. “You’ll die.”
In the tunnels death comes from every direction. One operator told of the time he tried to smuggle in a lion for a Gaza zoo. The animal was improperly sedated, awoke in the tunnel mid-trip, and tore one of the workers apart. Another operator showed me a video on his mobile phone of three skinny young men lying dead on gurneys. They were his cousins, he said, and had worked in his tunnel. I asked why they had no contusions or broken limbs. “They were gassed,” was the reply. According to some Palestinians, when Egypt has been pressed by Israel to cut down on smuggling, its troops have occasionally poisoned the air in tunnels by pumping in gas. Egypt has denied this.
After days of wrangling with assorted offices, we returned to the tunnel corridor. Word had spread that an American reporter was snooping around, and even with our official escort, many operators shunned us. But some warmed up.
The most welcoming was Abu Jamil, a white-haired grandfather and the unofficial mukhtar of the Philadelphi corridor. Abu Jamil is credited with having opened the first full-time tunnel. It quickly attracted too much business to be serviced by a well, so he dug an enormous trench for loading and unloading goods. Abu Jamil had opened several more tunnels, and his sons, grandsons, nephews, and cousins worked for him. He claimed to no longer care about the profit. “For me it’s a way to challenge our circumstances,” he said, as a dump truck backed into the trench to pick up a load of Egyptian sandstone. Asked what else he’s brought in over the years, he smiled wearily. “Oh, everything.” By which he meant cows, cleaning supplies, soda, medicine, a cobra for the zoo.
At a tunnel nearby we saw a shipment of potato chips arrive; at another, mango juice; at another, coils of rebar; at another, the familiar blue canisters of cooking gas. We reached one tunnel as 300 dripping Styrofoam boxes filled with fish packed in ice were being unloaded. Taxis and cars sent by restaurants and wives had pulled up to take delivery. The partners who ran this tunnel were young, in their 30s. They specialized in lambs and calves, they said, but fish was cheaper, and since Gazan fishermen were kept within a tight nautical limit by the Israeli Navy, seafood was always in demand.
Just then a man entered the tent and whispered to one of the partners. He didn’t want sardines—he wanted to be smuggled into Egypt. This is common. Some Gazans go by tunnel to the Egyptian side of Rafah for medical treatment. Some use the tunnels to escape, others to have a good time for a night. I heard that there were even VIP tunnels for wealthy travelers, with air-conditioning and cell phone reception.
As the two men haggled, there was yelling outside the tent. I rushed out to find a tunnel worker about to punch Paolo. The man was screaming that he didn’t want his picture taken. Every time a journalist comes here, he shouted, a tunnel is bombed. How, he yelled, could he tell that we weren’t spies? I’d noticed that when Ayman tried to persuade tunnel operators to speak with me, the word “Mossad” was often uttered. They presumed that if Paolo and I weren’t with the CIA, we must be with the Israeli spy agency. The tunnel worker’s paranoia is understandable, given that Israel’s surveillance of Gaza is constant, as the ceaseless buzz of drones overhead attested. And in recent memory, Israeli commandos have entered the tunnel zone. A few, as the Israeli press has documented, died in bomb explosions—booby traps set by Palestinians.
Although unemployment is endemic—the rate in Gaza is more than 30 percent—the Gaza Strip is full of would-be entrepreneurs. On the shore north of Gaza City, next to bombed-out cafés, fish farms are being built. On the roofs of buildings pockmarked by machine-gun fire, hydroponic vegetable gardens are being planted, and in Rafah, just west of the tunnels, a sewage-processing plant is now running, its pond lined with concrete pylons taken from the border wall.
Yet for the majority of Gazans, the tunnels remain the lifeline. One day in Rafah I met a man who was digging a well with the help of his two sons, using a horse in place of a winch. I asked if he worried about his sons’ safety. He said yes, of course. But he had no other job prospects and couldn’t afford to keep his sons in school. Fixing me with a skeptical look that suggested all the distance in the world between us, he said curtly, “Insa.” One of Arabic’s beautifully expressive idioms, the word means essentially, “That’s life.”
Alongside the tunnel economy is another, born of destruction. The UN estimates that Operation Cast Lead created more than half a million tons of rubble, which has become a currency in its own right. It’s everywhere, and the rubble collectors are usually teams of children wielding mallets and hammers, breaking down the stuff, sifting it, loading it onto donkey carts, and bringing it to one of the many concrete-block factories that have sprung up. This is how Gazans, unable to legally import construction materials, are rebuilding. A government economist told me that rubble alone accounted for a 6 percent drop in unemployment in 2010.
Gazans are still hopeful that the Arab Spring might bring a change in their circumstances, though so far it has not. There is talk of opening the border with Egypt, but when that might happen, or indeed whether it will at all, is unclear.
The economy of destruction takes on permutations that might have pleased Thutmose III: One night Paolo and I attended a wedding celebration in a bomb crater. It also takes ugly turns: According to an interview in an International Crisis Group report, “a handful of rockets are launched by young militants hired by local merchants whose profits would decline if Israel’s closure were further relaxed.” This is hideous enough to be believable, but the militants I met were entrepreneurially minded in a more peaceful way. One afternoon I interviewed an Islamic Jihad fighter at a patrol ground near Bayt Hanun. Wearing head-to-toe camouflage and a headband advertising his willingness to die for Allah, an AK-47 in his hands, and a 9-mm pistol strapped to his chest, he admitted that most days he studies business administration at the university. “Jihad is not a job,” he said.
Back in Jabalia, I talked with Samir about his future. “There is no chance I can go back to the tunnels,” he said. I asked what he’d do instead, and he waved his hand to indicate the room we were sitting in. As it turned out, his brother Yussef had signed a contract to rent this space. When Yussef wasn’t working in the tunnels, Samir explained, he was learning to become a beekeeper. He’d planned to open a honey shop here. Samir wanted to take it over in Yussef’s stead. And when I last heard from Samir, in September, the shop was up and running. When Yussef died, his wife was three months pregnant with their first child. She miscarried shortly afterward. She is now married to Yussef’s youngest brother, Khaled, who manages the honey shop with Samir. They keep a picture of Yussef on the wall.