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In desperate times, the perilous smugglers' tunnels between Gaza and Egypt become lifelines.
The tunnels along the seven-mile Gaza-Egypt border are most typically used to bring fuel, appliances, building materials, car parts and other commodities banned under Israel's economic blockade, which is aimed at isolating Hamas. The World Bank reports that about 80 percent of Gaza’s imports now come through the tunnels.
Before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August of 2005, most tunnels were hidden inside homes and used for weapons smuggling. Now, hundreds of white tents covering tunnel entrances are perched near the border for all to see. Explosives, guns, and supplies used to build Qassam rockets are still snuck into Gaza through the tunnels, despite Israeli and Egyptian efforts to clamp down on militant groups.
According to one tunnel owner named Abu Wadeya, only about 20 tunnels existed when he started his “business” in 2005. By the time Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June of 2007, the tunnel industry had begun to proliferate. Abu Wadeya claims there are now more than 1500 tunnels.
“Right now, if you have a tunnel, it’s like you have a shop,” he said. “[Five years ago], if you had a tunnel, you would be rich.”
While tunnel workers used to come only from Rafah, desperate men and boys from across Gaza are now risking death and arrest to earn some income. Some of these workers are children, whose nimble bodies can more easily navigate the narrow passageways. Dozens of Gazans have been killed in tunnel collapses and in Israeli bombings of the tunnels. Others have died as a result of gas leaks, falling rocks and electrocution.
The Egyptian government is currently constructing a 115-foot subterranean barrier aimed at destroying the tunnels. They seek to stop the flow of weapons into Gaza and prevent the travel of Palestinian militants into Egypt. According to Abu Wadeya, the subterranean barrier will likely spawn the creation of “deeper, more dangerous tunnels.”
Meanwhile, travel through the tunnels continues. Among the Gazan women who made the perilous journey is 60-year-old Um Waleed. Two years ago, she crossed the legal border into Egypt on route to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic pilgrimage. However, she returned a few weeks later to find the border closed. Loath to wait for the border to reopen, she accepted a friend’s offer to take her through a tunnel free-of-charge.
“I just said ‘God is with me,’ and I didn’t worry,” Um Waleed said, smiling and raising her chin. “There was electricity and a fan inside the tunnel. I sat by [the fan] to take a long rest. And I prayed inside the tunnel. I prayed again and again.”