Tag Archives: palestine

‘Trade In Spade’ – Gaza’s Destroyed Tunnels

First published in print with Makeshift Magazine July 2014

Tearsheets below:

Abu Mohamed hovers near the entrance of a gaping cavern and fumbles with a small set of speakers. He carefully traces his fingers along a black wire until they reach a tiny, metal nub soldered onto the end. Putting the ad-hoc microphone to his lips, he shouts, “Ready? Okay. Pull, Wajdi!”

At the end of the tunnel, nearly a kilometer away, Abu Mohamed’s command booms through another set of speakers in a haze of distorted feedback. Wajdi, hunkered underground in near-total darkness, reaches over a mound of freshly dug soil and flicks a rusty switch from “0” to “1”. A nearby crank whirrs at full speed and a sprawl of cable slowly spins towards him.

Back at the surface, Abu Mohamed watches as an empty rubber sled, hooked to one end of the cable, slowly slithers down a steady gradient and into the tunnel to Wajdi, who fills it with soil and sends it back. Turning to me, Abu Mohamed smiles, throws his arms open and almost bows. “This is how you build a tunnel, my friend.

For the beleaguered residents of the Gaza Strip, underground smuggling tunnels to Egypt are a lifeline. When the Islamist group Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel responded with a trade blockade, and the subterranean black market became the main thoroughfare for everyday necessities. “We’re talking everything here: household furniture, flour, sugar, cement, tobacco, electronics, gas. It was a huge business,” says Omar Shaban, an economist and director of the local think tank PalThink.

Hundreds of tunnels that connected to Egypt’s Sinai region once accounted for 99 percent of trade in Gaza, he adds. The market was so lucrative that in 2008, Hamas started incorporating tunnel revenues into its fiscal budget. “At its height, the tunnels were the main source of tax to the Hamas government. There were some estimations that the taxes arrived to half a billion dollars a year.”

That has all since changed since the summer of 2013, after Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in a military coup and a spate of terrorist attacks hit Egypt’s poorly policed Sinai. The Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas (an original offshoot of the Brotherhood) were quickly blamed for the attacks, and the smuggling tunnels were labeled a conduit to terrorism.

“They must have destroyed some 1,100 [tunnels],” Abu Mohamed sighs, remembering the Egyptian military operation that followed Morsi’s coup. He adamantly denied that weapons or militants flowed underground. “We use it as a lifeline, not for terrorists.”

Abu Mohamed is one of a handful of remaining diggers trying to resuscitate the tunnel networks and ameliorate an economic slump that Omar Shaban describes as “the worst ever in Gaza’s recent history”. Abu Mohamed’s tent in the southern Rafah region of Gaza is a rare sign of life in a sea of abandoned white marquees that shelter the entrances to defunct tunnels.

Abu Mohamed is five months and one kilometer into the project; he will need to double this to finish. “The tunnels need to be longer now to avoid the Egyptian military,” he says.

The typical strategy for building a tunnel is to simply dig at an angle perpendicular to the border with Egypt. Ahmed, another digger here, peers over the edge of a tunnel well and explains, “You have two basic types of tunnel: one like this,”—he kicks a rock down the shaft and waits to hear it crack against the bottom—“which is built straight down around 15 meters, before going straight across the border, then straight up again.” The other type slowly curves down in a gentle “U” shape before popping back up in Egypt.

“I have heard of some people digging with their hands,” Abu Mohamed explains as another sled full of soil emerges from the hole. “But we have spades and pickaxes. Gaza is good for that. It has a lot of construction equipment lying around and no materials to build with.”

The Gazan diggers almost mock the Egyptian border guards with how close they build to the border. None of the tunnel entrances are more than 200 meters away from the Egyptian outposts. “They already know we start here. What’s really important is that they don’t find the exit,” Ahmed says, pointing over into Egypt.

“We don’t know exactly where the other tunnels are, underground, but it isn’t that congested down there,” Abu Mohamed says. “As long as we dig straight from here we won’t have any problems. The only problems are when we reach Egypt.”

The entrance to his tunnel, which measures four-and-a-half feet high, is framed with large piles of sandbags in a cursory attempt to stop the earth from collapsing in around it. Wooden supports prop up the passageway for the first 20 meters, but after that, the tunnel continues on its own, unsupported and with tons of earth above it.

Towards the middle, the claustrophobia-inducing tunnel reaches several lows of less than three feet, requiring visitors to assume a prostrate crawl to sneak through. The atmosphere hangs heavy with a stale humidity, the earth sweats and heaves under the immense weight above it. In these tunnels, workplace safety and standard engineering codes are merely an afterthought.

“It’s very dangerous. I know a lot of people who have died,” Ahmed says. “My cousin was injured in a tunnel collapse just six months ago.” Peering into the darkness he recalls his first venture into one of the tunnels. “It felt like I was walking into my own grave.”

Wajdi suddenly comes in over the speakers from deep inside the tunnel. “[The sled is] all full, Abu Mohamed. Can you send some water and cigarettes down the next time?” Abu Mohamed reaches into his packet of cigarettes, pulls out three sticks and lays them down next to the microphone. “No problem, Wajdi.”

Leave a comment

August 7, 2014 · 16:55

Gaza’s Tunnel Vision

First published on Vocativ on 14 May 2014

Gaza’s infamous tunnels are at once a lifeline and a deathtrap. They connect the occupied territories with areas beyond their closed borders, freeing up trade and working as a conduit for goods to flow back and forth. But the Egyptian and Israeli governments regard the tunnels as a security threat and work constantly to detect and shut them down, so the risks for those working underground are great. They could be gassed, flooded or bombed out of the passages—if they make it out at all. While the tunnels are a necessity in many ways, the Gaza population is extremely conflicted about their existence.

Leave a comment

May 14, 2014 · 18:55

Yonatan Mendel – Israeli Media

Yonatan Mendel is a Journalist in Israel  currently writing a PhD about Zionism and the Arabic language.  In this piece she recounts the concerning use of language in the Israeli Media with regards to their national security.

Leave a comment

Filed under Israel-Palestine, Links, Politics

Al-Nakba

http://www.alnakba.org/

Today marks the the 64th anniversary of the exodus of between 700,000-1,000,000 palestinians from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.  15th of May is the day after Israel’s declaration of independence and it is commemorated by palestinians and many others all around the Arab world in what is known as Al-Nakba day (Nakba النكبة meaning ‘catastrophe’ in arabic).  Today’s rally was held outside the headquarters of the Arab League, which lies just off Tahrir Square, and attracted what I estimated to be around 100-150 people.

The rally itself was incredibly peaceful, bar about 5 minutes where someone pulled out apiece of card with the Israeli flag painted on it: que angry stamping, ripping and burning of said flag.  The rally itself was planned from 2-6pm but seemed to peak by about 3:30pm and had died down completely by 4:30pm.  The majority of the rally was held in good cheer, fine voice and better banners, with anti-israeli and arab-solidarity chants resonating through the little crowd of Palestinians and Egyptians.

Around 5pm I was told to head to a cafe where I found a group of people including some from the demonstration.  One of them (second from right in the picture) was telling me how large the Al-Nakba rally was the previous year.  He was an Egyptian who had spent some time in Palestine.  He had unusually blue eyes and on his wrist he wore a black, green and red band with the words “Free Gaza” in bold white.  When he spoke English, he spoke with a strong American accent.

“Last year there were thousands of people who came for Al-Nakba”

I asked him why there were so few people this time.  He seemed ashamed that I had noticed the relatively poor turn-out, before sitting back and sighing,

“Abbasiya”

This seemed a somewhat tenuous connection to me
(http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2012/1097/eg61.htm)

“You think what happened in Abbasiya stopped some people from coming to the rally today?”

“Of course man! What happened in Abbasiya was scary.  Nobody thought that would would happen during a peaceful protest with unarmed civilians.  But the thing about Abbasiya is that its geography is perfect for an ambush.  And that’s what happened, a fucking ambush.  Who knew what would happen today”

Another, far more persuasive, train of thought was that the deal brokered between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority over the hunger strikes was timed to perfection.

(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/14/palestinian-hunger-strike-israel-prisoners_n_1514969.html)

The fact that a deal was made the day before Al-Nakba may have killed any momentum there was.  Perhaps the fact that Egypt itself is in a state of political unrest didn’t help the Palestinian cause.  In the weeks building up to an election that many see as both too early (there isn’t a constitution in place) yet too late (the ruling SCAF military have been in control so long, they wouldn’t really give it up) it would be understandable if the Egyptians had other things on their mind.

Leave a comment

Filed under Israel-Palestine, Politics