Why Do They Risk Their Lives Working in Tunnels?

IPS — Since mid 2007, Israel and Egypt, with the help of the international community, have imposed a siege of staggering severity on the 1.5 million humans in the Gaza Strip. Israeli rights group GISHA reports Israeli officials stated the purpose of the siege is “(not for security), but (to) apply ‘pressure’ or ’sanctions’ on the Hamas regime.”

The United Nations (UN) reports that “15-20% of essential medicines are commonly out of stock and there are shortages of essential spare parts for many items of medical equipment,” further noting that 80% of what comes into Gaza does so via the tunnels.

Unemployment is at nearly 60%, and 98% of industry, including factories and businesses, have been decimated by the siege and the Israeli war on Gaza.

The over 1000 tunnels running from Egypt to Gaza employ upwards of 20,000 people and allow in what is banned by Israel and closed borders: foodstuffs, oil, cooking gas, cars and car parts, medicines, appliances, clothing and shoes, building materials, livestock, school materials, cola, milk formula, cigarettes, and even people.

Since January 2008 alone, the UN reports that at least 135 Palestinians have been killed and over 200 injured, including by: crushing or suffocation; Israeli bombings; gas poisoning by Egyptian authorities; electrocution; and fuel spills.

In August 2009, three young men from the Lahham family were killed while working in a tunnel. Majed Lahham, 27, from Deir al Balah, and cousins Jaber, 20, and Saber, 22, from Khan Younis were killed and cousin Bahari Lahham, 23, blinded, when Egyptian soldiers pumped poisonous gas into the tunnel they were working in, says Majed’s family.

“He didn’t want to work in the tunnels,” says Mahmoud, one of his 5 brothers, “but he had no other options. He wanted to make an apartment on top floor of our house, get married and start a family.”

Before the siege, Majed worked odd jobs. Eventually, he could find no work other than burrowing a tunnel. Majed worked every day but Friday, 5pm to 3 am.

“The siege forces people to go to work in the tunnels. We want to live, so we make these tunnels, to bring food and goods. There’s no other work aside from this,” says Mahmoud.

“He had quit working in tunnels, but friends persuaded him to return,” Majed’s father says. “The day he was killed, I told him to rest, it was Friday, he needed a break. But Majed said he needed to work.”

Nassim, 25, holds a university degree in electronic engineering and had opened his own clothing store prior to the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza.

Opposite Barcelona Park in Gaza City’s Tel el Howa district, the store, the park, and other shops were destroyed by Israeli bombing and bulldozing.

Even before Israel began the 23 day war on Gaza, Nassim had begun working in a tunnel. “I needed the money to pay the bills until my business took off,” he says.

Living with his aunt, uncle and their children, and hoping to marry soon, Nassim is the only provider in the family. “There’s no work, no other possibilities, so I chose the tunnels.”

For over one year, Nassim worked 24 hours on, 12 hours off, in a 1,200 metre-long tunnel, 31 metres deep.

At 3:30 am on December 7, 2009, Israeli warplanes twice bombed the tunnels, causing Nassim’s tunnel to collapse on two sides. One man, 23, was killed immediately. Nassim and two others waited to be dug out.

“We were trapped down there for 3 days, because roughly 70 metres of tunnels had collapsed with the strikes.” The men survived off of sugar water fed through the steel piping which provides air to most tunnels. “‘If we die, we die,’ I thought. I wasn’t afraid, I was mostly just exhausted,” says Nassim.

Nassim and one of the other men suffered broken bones from the tunnel collapse. The third survivor lost both legs to the crush of earth.

“Tunnels are always extremely hot, but because ours had been blocked on two sides, it was unbearably hot inside,” says Nassim. “But the worst was when I reached the outside and cold winter air. Then I really started to feel the pain.”

A.B. has not worked for the last two years. He is married, with 6 children and has two years left in his law degree. “I knew people worked in the tunnels, but I never thought I would. I thought it was work for the crazy.”

The meagre income A.B. had from renting an apartment in his home was not enough to cover the costs of his family and the $500 per term university fee.

“I tried to get a simple job, even as a taxi driver, but couldn’t find anything. I felt isolated from my relatives and wanted to avoid social interaction because I couldn’t afford the gifts which in our culture you take to hosts.”

“Finally, I accepted a job from a friend working in the tunnels. I knew the job was dangerous, but I had no other choice.”

At 12 on a March afternoon, A.B. went for his first and last day of work, lowered 24 metres via a harness and pulley into a brightly lit tunnel.

“It was very hot and very humid. With the stink of rotting wood and sweat and the heat, it was suffocating,” he recalls.
Given a simple tunnel wall repair job, A.B. was caught when suddenly the tunnel collapsed, burying four workers, including A.B. who convalesced for 2 weeks after.

“I did it because I was so desperate. My wife is 7 months pregnant now. I couldn’t just sit and complain, I had to solve our financial problem.”

Abu F is working to provide for the 12 people in his family. His father is unemployed and one brother is in university. “I’m not afraid for my safety: whatever God decides will happen,” he says. “But I would leave if there was other work.”

Raed, 20, was studying at university but eventually quit because he couldn’t pay tuition fees and needed to contribute to his family’s needs.

Abu S, 40, works to support his 7 children, wife, father and mother. “I used to work in construction and earned 50 shekels a day, which is very little. But there’s not even that work now.”

But he worries.

“Actually, everyone is afraid. But we need the work, so we do this. I want people outside Gaza to understand and feel our situation, why we take this work. What would you do if you had a family to support and there was no work?”

Abu M, 40, owns a tunnel. Prior to owning a tunnel, Abu M, started at the bottom, as a digger. “People who have job security and are living well, they’d never risk their lives and endure this hell. But tunnel workers are desperate.”

When the borders were open and there was work, there was no need for the tunnels, he says. “But with the siege, we resorted to them, to bring in the food and everything Israel is denying us.”

In May 2009, Ha’aretz reported only between 30 to 40 items were allowed to enter Gaza.

“Every family in Gaza needs the tunnels,” says Abu M. “Diapers, milk, medicine, paper, pens, benzene… Everyone uses something that comes through the tunnels.”

“Workers earn 100 shekels per day, less than we earned when the tunnels first started, because now tunnel digging and work is so common; we know the techniques.”

Israel deems the hundreds of tunnels feeding the Gaza Strip illegal and has, with the help of Egypt, America and other nations, made attempts at stopping them altogether.

Last year, Egypt began construction of a fortified underground wall meant to cut off the tunnels. Despite the reportedly bomb-proof steel, Palestinian tunnel workers have been able to cut through the steel using blow torches and patience. Egypt, however, benefits from the tunnels: financially, taking a cut of goods brought into Gaza via Egypt, and morally, relieving Egypt for its complicity in a prolonged siege which denies the human beings in Gaza virtually everything needed on a daily basis.

Eva Bartlett is a Canadian human rights advocate and freelancer living in Gaza. Read other articles by Eva.