An inside look at the tunnels under Gaza and the men who risk their lives to bring in essential supplies.
Note: This programme originally aired on Al Jazeera English on April 20, 2014
An estimated 7,000 Gazans scratch an insecure living by working in the tunnels, stretching from southern Gaza into Egypt. The network of tunnels, estimates numbering over 500, is an essential prop to Gazan business.
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Through them flow building materials, foods, medicines, drugs, and people, accounting for an estimated $700 million per year in an economy which grew by 20 percent in 2011.
Owning a tunnel is a lucrative business – there are believed to be hundreds of “tunnel millionaires” – but building them and working in them is highly dangerous.
Mahmoud Ramlawi swore never to return to tunnelling after his cousin and best friend Khalid was killed in 2009. But the need to earn money drove him back, and now he is largely responsible for the support of his extended family.
He longs for other work but for the moment has no choice. His working days are overshadowed by the knowledge that a cave-in or bombing could happen at any time; deaths happen every week.
Filmed by a young Gazan filmmaker, “The Gaza tunnels” provides an extraordinary glimpse into the lives of the men who build and work in the underground lifeline of the Gaza economy, with astonishing footage of the movement of goods and people through the tunnels themselves.
By Mohamed Harb
All crossings into Gaza have been blocked off since 2007, which means access to food and fuel is difficult. Selling basic goods has become a great way for people to earn a living and, for some, to become very wealthy.
The smuggling tunnels of the besieged Gaza Strip now make up a key route that provides the residents with essential amenities.
In recent years, life in Gaza has been defined by the scarcity of food, clothing, fuel, and cargo. The markets are empty and there are fewer people and cars on the streets. Many unemployed Gazans believe work in the tunnels is the only option available to them.
My film, ‘The Gaza tunnels’, highlights the daily hardship of life in the Gaza Strip, which is the result of a crippling siege that has affected more than a million and a half of its people.
The land, sea, and air blockade has been a disaster for such a small territory and has almost stopped daily life from functioning.
One of the ways in which Gazans have challenged the blockade is by digging underground tunnels between the Egypt-Gaza borders, in order to smuggle basic goods.
The tunnel workers, who risk their lives in order to ensure the survival of the territory, go to work knowing that they could be digging their own graves.
Many workers have lost their lives doing this type of work, while others, mostly business owners, have become very rich.
There is no doubt that the tunnels have eased the tragedy of people of Gaza, especially for students and hospital patients who need to travel outside of the territory to use better funded and facilitated services in Egypt.
The tunnels are also used to transport vital goods into the territory like medicine, food, and construction materials.
But the consequence of having these goods has been the deaths of poor tunnel workers. Besides collapsing tunnels, the workers also face danger from the Israeli army, which often drops bombs on the underground routes in an effort to cut off Gaza’s main lifeline.
Mahmoud Ramlawi, the main character of my film, tells the story of Gaza’s tunnel workers through his own experiences of working there. More than 400 tunnel workers have died doing this job – some of them Mahmoud’s friends.
“The Gaza tunnels” revolves mainly around the story of Mahmoud’s friend, Khaled, who lived with his family in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza.
After getting married, Khaled accrued many debts that he struggled to pay. Because of the siege, Khaled also had difficulty finding employment and believed he had no other option but to begin working on the tunnels. His family was against his decision because they knew how dangerous this type of work was. And they were right; Khaled died in a collapsed tunnel leaving behind his wife, pregnant and alone.
He began working with his friend, Bassem Khadr. Bassem was also killed working in the tunnels. His body was found after eight days of digging, and he left behind a large family and young children.
In recent years, life in Gaza has been defined by the scarcity of food, clothing, fuel, and cargo. The markets are empty and there are fewer people and cars on the streets.
Many unemployed Gazans believe work in the tunnels is the only option available to them. As a result, Gaza has been transformed into another city – a “city of tunnels”.
The illegal routes can take between three to five months to build, and it is estimated that there are around 3,000 tunnel workers in total.
Almost seven years after the Gaza blockade was imposed by Egypt and Israel, the Palestinian territory is still facing political problems and economic challenges, especially after the majority of its tunnels have been recently demolished by the Egyptian army.
Egypt’s recent actions have intensified the effects of the blockade and the impact has been semi-surreal. Despite the challenges, Gazans will continue to find new ways to survive and have hope for their country.