Gaza Strip “Gaza Metro” smuggling tunnels

Sunday, 29 October 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Union for the Mediterranean
Reading Time:  11 minutes

Smuggling tunnel in Rafah © flickr.com - Marius Arnesen/cc-by-sa-2.0

Smuggling tunnel in Rafah © flickr.com – Marius Arnesen/cc-by-sa-2.0

The Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels are smuggling tunnels that had been dug under the Philadelphi Route along the Egypt–Gaza border. They were dug to subvert the blockade of the Gaza Strip to smuggle in fuel, food, weapons and other goods into the Gaza Strip. After the Egypt–Israel peace treaty of 1979, the town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was split by this buffer zone. One part is located in the southern part of Gaza, and the smaller part of the town is in Egypt. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Philadelphi Corridor was placed under the control of the Palestine Authority until 2007, when the terror organization Hamas seized power in 2007, and Egypt and Israel closed borders with the Gaza Strip. In 2009, Egypt began the construction of an underground barrier to block existing tunnels and make new ones harder to dig. In 2011, Egypt relaxed restrictions at its border with the Gaza Strip, allowing Palestinians to cross freely. In 2013–2014, Egypt’s military destroyed most of the 1,200 smuggling tunnels. Experts estimate the total length of the tunnel system to be 480 to 500 km, which is where the nickname “Gaza Metro” (subway) comes from.

The Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels are tunnels across the Gaza–Egypt border, used to bypass the Rafah Border Crossing, which is used for exceptional cases only, when opened at all. The first recorded discovery of a tunnel by Israel was in 1983, after Israel had withdrawn from the Sinai. The border, redrawn in 1982 after the Egypt–Israel peace treaty, divided Rafah into an Egyptian and a Gazan part. The tunnels used to start from the basements of houses in Rafah on the one side of the border and end in houses in Rafah on the other side. By September 2005, after withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Israel declared that Palestinians would not have control of their side of the crossing, and the Rafah crossing should be closed. During the rest of the year Egypt opened and closed the crossing intermittently. In November 2005, two agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority permitted the reopening of the crossing with third-party European Union assistance. However, the movement of people were very restricted and goods would use the Kerem Shalom crossing, under the supervision of Israelis and monitored by EU monitors. In 2006, the Rafah crossing was opened to June. During the rest of the year it was open during 31 days at random. In June 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. Following the takeover, Egypt and Israel largely sealed their border crossings with Gaza, on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority had fled and was no longer providing security on the Palestinian side. The Karni and Rafah checkpoints were closed again, resulting in “severe personal and economic hardship for Gaza’s 1.4 million population”, according to OCHA. Thousands of travelers have been stranded on both sides of the border. The blockade of the Gaza Strip has caused a shortage of certain basic products, especially construction materials, fuel, some consumer articles, and medicines and medical supplies. Import restrictions, including of basic building materials, have led to the proliferation of tunnels under the border with Egypt. As Israel limits the Palestinian freedom of movement, for most Gazans the tunnels are the only way to move from and to Gaza.

The tunnels were used to smuggle a wide range of goods, including fuel, gas, cement, construction materials, raw materials, pesticides, seeds, agricultural tools, preservatives, packaging material, spare parts, livestock, zoo animals, food, medicines, clothes, car parts, building supplies, weapons and luxury items in general. Initially, the tunnels were used for moving consumer goods and medicines. During the First Intifada (December 1987 to 1993), some, more secret, tunnels were said to be used by militant groups to bring in arms and money. A 2015 report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that between 2007 and 2013, more than 1,532 tunnels were running under the border to mitigate the impact of the blockade on Gaza. They were closed by mid-2013. The size of the tunnel trade was even greater than the volume of trade through official channels. The tunnels had been essential to recover from the destructions during the 2008/2009 Gaza War. Based on the materials allowed in by Israel, it would have taken 80 years to rebuild the 6,000 housing units destroyed during the military operation. Due to the tunnel imports, it only took five years. Gaza’s sole power plant ran on diesel from Egypt brought through the tunnels in the range of 1 million litres per day before June 2013. In 2015. UNCTAD reported that the end of the tunnel economy highlighted an urgent need for the complete and immediate lifting of Israel’s blockade on Gaza.

Tunnel with wooden walls © flickr.com - Israel Defense Forces/cc-by-2.0 IDF soldiers found terror tunnel in Gaza © flickr.com - Israel Defense Forces/cc-by-sa-2.0 IDF soldiers uncover tunnels in Gaza © flickr.com - Israel Defense Forces/cc-by-sa-2.0 Gaza rocket map © Israel Defense Force/cc-by-sa-2.0 Smuggling tunnel in Rafah © flickr.com - Marius Arnesen/cc-by-sa-2.0 Barrier against tunnels along the Israel-Gaza Strip border © IDF Spokesperson's Unit/cc-by-sa-3.0
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Barrier against tunnels along the Israel-Gaza Strip border © IDF Spokesperson's Unit/cc-by-sa-3.0
Israel restricts the importation of construction materials into the strip, to prevent their use for military purposes by Hamas. As a result, concrete and other construction materials were some of the main goods smuggled through the tunnels.

Smuggling fuel through the tunnels has been the primary source of fuel for Gaza’s only power plant. Electricity is inter alia needed for the desalination of drinking water. After Egypt demolished hundreds of tunnels in 2013 and Israel closed the Kerem Shalom Crossing, a shortage in fuel caused the shut down of the power plant. Increased fuel shortages and high prices, due to the intensified anti-tunnels measures by the Egyptian government under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, halted the functioning of sewage treatment facilities in Gaza in 2014. Untreated waste water was pumped into the Gaza shore, causing serious environment pollution and swimming prohibition at the beaches.

Facing the restriction of the Palestinian freedom of movement, an advanced system of human transport has been established, including the issue of tickets which serve as a travel permit. A travel ticket from and to Gaza may cost between $30 and $300 (2012), depending on the provided service. As of 2012, travelling by car was possible. Travelling through the tunnels was popular during Ramadan in 2012. As travelling through the Israeli crossings is only permitted by exception, and the Rafah Crossing is opened for limited periods, if opened at all, the tunnels have often become the only outlet for the strip’s residents. The tunnels are used as part of a route into Israel by smugglers and terrorists, named the Het route by the Israeli military because of a similar shape to the Hebrew letter Het. The route starts in Gaza, into the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, then into Israel at a less well guarded part of the border.

According to an article by Nicolas Pelham in the IPS Journal of Palestine Studies, child labor is employed in the smuggling tunnels with the justification that children are more “nimble.” Despite calls from human rights groups for the Gaza government to stop the practice, regulation of child labor is lax. Pelham reported that “at least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials”. Benjamin Netanyahu used the IPS publication to document his claim that “Hamas puts children to work in terror tunnels, sending them to their death.” The claim was widely used by numerous pro-Israeli media outlets. In a response to Netanyahu, Institute for Palestine Studies recalled that the tunnels were regulated by but largely not owned or operated by Hamas, and were a “response to Israel’s imposition of a draconian blockade that drastically controls and at times has banned almost all goods entering the territory, from construction materials, and gasoline, down to such items as pasta.” The response further stated that “Pelham never suggests, as the prime minister seemed to imply in his comments, that children were ever used to build tunnels for military purposes, least of all into Israel”, although “Hamas, as the governing authority in Gaza, did not implement its own directives to prevent the use of child labor”. The Institute admitted an error in the article: There had not least 160 children been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials, but rather 160 persons as of 2012. IPS noted that more than 541 were children and some 3084 wounded by the Israeli bombing in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict that was ongoing at the time.

The tunnels are normally dug by individual contractors from basements of houses or an olive grove under the border at depths of up to 30 meters (100 feet), and reaching up to 800 meters (2640 feet) in length. In many cases, the owners of the houses enter into a business arrangement with the tunnel builders. They may receive a portion of the profits from the smuggling or some other sort of financial compensation from those who contract the tunnel construction. While many tunnels are of a generally high quality of engineering and construction – with some including electricity, ventilation, intercoms, and a rail system – they are still very dangerous and are prone to cave-ins. The openings to many tunnels are found within buildings in or around Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

Gaza_Strip_Access_Restrictions
Read more on Wikipedia Gaza Strip, Wikipedia Gaza–Israel barrier, Wikipedia Palestinian tunnel warfare in the Gaza Strip and Wikipedia Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.






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