What is life like inside the tunnels of Gaza?

November 20, 2012

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.


A worker emerges from one of hundreds of smuggling tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip and Egypt. The photo is from the December issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo: © Paolo Pellegrin/National Geographic) Click here for more photos.

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.


Lamb is a luxury most Gazans can afford only on important Muslim holidays. With many farms devastated by war, and with other land lying unproductive in areas restricted by Israel, livestock comes in by tunnel from Egypt. The photo is from the December issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo: © Paolo Pellegrin/National Geographic) Click here for more photos.

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.


A Gazan university student works in a tunnel, hauling goods to earn money for tuition. Many workers put in 12-hour shifts six days a week, or more, €”in the cramped spaces. The photo is from the December issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo: © Paolo Pellegrin/National Geographic) Click here for more photos.

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.


A worker moves boxes inside the smuggling tunnels area in Rafah. The photo is from the December issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo: © Paolo Pellegrin/National Geographic) Click here for more photos.

 


Members of the militant group Islamic Jihad patrol the border with Israel to prevent incursions by the Israel Defense Forces. The average Gazan family has six people, and with so few jobs to be had, disaffected young men are drawn to extremist groups. The photo is from the December issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photo: © Paolo Pellegrin/National Geographic)

You can read the full story by James Verini hereClick here to see more images by Paolo Pellegrin, which are featured in the December issue of the National Geographic.

Read our coverage of the Israel-Gaza crisis.

Anup Kaphle is the Post's digital foreign editor. He has an M.S. degree in journalism from Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
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