notes from the underground

Here are the tunnels Israel is trying to close with military action in Gaza

July 21, 2014
Obsession
Borders
July 21, 2014

The Israeli reason for the controversial military invasion of Gaza is, at least officially, about one critical piece of infrastructure: Tunnels used to smuggle people, goods and weapons in and out of the densely populated 360 square kilometers (139 square miles) of land.

The Palestinian territory, surrounded by Israel and Egypt, enjoys little regular uncontrolled access to either country, thanks to the operations of terrorist insurgents and political blockades imposed by Israel. In response to these restrictions, a transit method has evolved to go beneath the land borders. The first tunnels were discovered by Israel in 1980s, shortly after the finalization of the border between Gaza and Egypt, and have played a role in every conflict since. In this current incursion, Israel says it has discovered 46 entrances to 14 different tunnels.

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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.
(Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Some of the tunnels are of elaborate enough construction that it was reportedly possible to drive cars through them. That scale of effort requires significant concrete reinforcement, as the tunnel exposed by Israeli forces below has. For this reason, concrete and cement are among the goods restricted from import to Gaza to all but international organizations, which hasn’t helped the building industry in the territory’s dysfunctional economy.

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The entrance to a tunnel exposed by the Israeli military is seen on the Israeli side of the Israel-Gaza border March 27, 2014. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) announced that they exposed the tunnel on March 21, 2014.
(Reuters/Amir Cohen)

The most elaborate tunnels are those that have connected Gaza to Egypt, typically through the divided town of Rafah. In years past, these tunnels were often tolerated by Egyptian regimes, allowing residents of the strip to access supplies of fuel, food, water, and even live animals. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of smuggled goods crossed the border this way at the peak of the tunnels’ operations.

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A Palestinian smuggler hauls a calf out from a tunnel that goes beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border October 24, 2008. Hundreds of Gaza merchants throng around the border area of Rafah every day to pick up merchandise coming to Gaza from Egypt via subterranean passages that have created a flourishing trade zone.
(Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

But anywhere innocuous goods can move in a conflict zone, weapons are sure to follow. Militias connected to Hamas and other militant Palestinian Islamist groups have relied on these tunnels as a key source of weaponry. That includes materials to build rockets that the groups have launched against Israeli cities, spurring Israeli reprisals and making the tunnels a target of military significance. Other tunnels go from Gaza into Egypt and are used by Palestinian militants to launch attacks, including a 2006 raid that resulted in the capture of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, whose five-year captivity ended with a high-profile prisoner swap.

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** FILE ** In this file photo from Monday, Sept. 15, 2008, a Palestinian militant from the Al Nasser Brigades, an armed wing of the Popular Resistance Committees with ties to the Islamic group Hamas, shows the explosive tips of homemade rockets during a display at a storage facility in Gaza City. Most of the Hamas rockets targeted at Israel are thrown together in small metal shops in densely populated areas of Gaza. But a growing number are more sophisticated, longer-range weapons, believed put together from parts thought to originate in Syria or Iran, and smuggled in through Egyptian tunnels. Despite that new capacity, Hamas is still far beyond another anti-Israeli militant group, Hezbollah, in its rocket capabilities.
(AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)

The tunnels have been under pressure for some time. Before the current campaign by Israel targeting the tunnels, Egypt had been cracking down on the passages that ended in its territory, one of the results of the overthrow of the short-lived regime of Mohammed al-Morsi last year. Morsi’s regime was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political movement that is an ideological cousin of Gaza’s Hamas. The military regime that put current president (and former general) Abdel al-Sisi in power views closing tunnels as part of its broader efforts to put down Islamist groups. One tactic used to close the tunnels is flooding, which is what happened in the below photo in 2007, when Egypt’s then-president Mubarak was cracking down on tunnels in an effort to broker a broader peace deal between Israel and Palestinian groups.

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A Palestinian works inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian forces, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip February 19, 2013.
(Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

The current Egyptian government lacks the credibility in the eyes of Palestinian Islamists to play that peace broker role with the two parties once again. That’s one reason for pessimism in the international community about the current conflict ending on anything other than Israel’s terms, which, despite warnings and requests for restraint from international groups, likely spells a months-long occupation.

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Palestinian tunnel workers smoke cigarettes as they rest inside a smuggling tunnel flooded by Egyptian security forces, beneath the Gaza-Egypt border in the southern Gaza Strip September 10, 2013. Egyptian security forces have stepped up a crackdown campaign on smuggling tunnels on the border between Egypt and Gaza Strip since last July, Hamas officials said.
(Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

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