For almost five years now, more than 1.5 million people in Gaza have been living under a blockade, a measure imposed by Israel, and later tightened by Egypt, to weaken Hamas and end rocket attacks into Israel. By restricting imports and exports, the blockade has created severe economic hardships. The United Nations says it perpetuates “an unsustainable and unacceptable” situation for the Gazans. So the Gazans have come to rely on an elaborate network of smuggling tunnels to get supplies.
Enter the tunnels of Gaza.
The National Geographic magazine’s James Verini and photographer Paolo Pellegrin spent some time six stories down in the vast network of underground tunnels that stretch from Egypt into Gaza — a network that has become the lifeline for everyday domestic products like wheat and cooking oil, lamb and calves for special occasions, as well as a lion for the Gaza zoo.
Verini portrays a detailed picture of the dangers that are involved in working inside one of these tunnels, many of which are “lethally shoddy” in construction. Despite the dangers involved, he says people operating these tunnels show no fear.
It’s no secret that Gaza’s tunnel operators are brazen, the more so since the Arab Spring began. Just how brazen was not apparent until we emerged from the market, and an expanse of white tarpaulin tent roofs opened up before us. It stretched along the border wall in both directions, tent after tent as far as the eye could see. Beneath each was a tunnel. They were all in the so-called Philadelphi route, the patrol zone created by the Israeli military as part of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. All were in full view of Egyptian surveillance towers and sniper nests.
The tunnels provide an opportunity for both aspiring entrepreneurs and those looking for cash. One of the men who had lost his job working on a farm in Israel decided to dig his own tunnel, which was 400 yards long. According to Verini, five to 12 men work in half day shifts inside his tunnel, six days a week and earn about $50 per shift.
Read our coverage of the Israel-Gaza crisis.