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Gaza smugglers — serving the community

In desperate times, the perilous smugglers' tunnels between Gaza and Egypt become lifelines.

A Palestinian smuggler climbs down into a tunnel, temporarily closed by Hamas forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip April 14, 2010. Israel wants to close down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, but the tunnelers have become so good it's now possible to drive a car through them, literally. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

RAFAH, Gaza — On a peaceful day in war-ravaged Rafah, seven-year-old Yousef burst into his home with blood gushing from his left eye. A playmate had lobbed a small rock, which struck Yousef directly in his pupil. A doctor at a local clinic stopped the bleeding, but claimed there was nothing more he could do. Mother and father then decided to take matters into their own hands.

“I couldn’t wait for the hospitals in Gaza,” said Yousef’s father, who declined to disclose his name. “I knew [bringing Yousef through the smuggling tunnels] would be dangerous, but I wanted to give hope to my son to [be able] to see. The equipment, doctors and treatments are better in Egypt.”

Only two days after the injury occurred in the fall of 2009, Yousef’s mother carried him under the Egyptian border through a 4-foot-wide passageway owned by a family friend. Her husband encouraged her to go, figuring that women and children are less likely to be jailed by the Egyptian police. She reasoned that there was no other way to get Yousef quality medical help right away. The border was closed as usual; even when it was open, Palestinians without entry visas were not allowed in. And permits to get medical treatment in Israel were difficult to obtain.

“[As I crawled through the tunnel to Egypt], I wasn’t thinking about the fear or the danger. I was only thinking about my son.” Yousef’s mother recalled. “He was crying in the tunnel. He was very afraid. He said, 'I don’t want to go to Egypt.' ... On the way back to Gaza, I felt afraid that the tunnel might collapse.”

Yousef and his mother spent about 15 minutes underground traversing to Egypt. While most tunnel owners charge about $2,000 to smuggle a person in one direction, Yousef and his mother traveled for free. They managed to evade the Egyptian police, but doctors at the Egyptian hospital could not completely repair Yousef's eye. The giggly seven-year-old still roughhouses with his friends, but with sight only in his right eye.

Yousef and his mother are among many people who travel through the tunnels for the same diverse reasons that they would cross a legal border. Some go from Gaza to Egypt to work in other countries. Others seek to escape problems in Gaza. Still others visit sick relatives on the other side. Women from Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Sudan come through the tunnels to marry Gazan men.

Activists and freelance journalists denied Gaza entry visas are rumored to have entered through the tunnels.