RAFAH, Gaza — On a peaceful day in war-ravaged Rafah, seven-year-old Yousef burst into his home with blood gushing from his left eye. A playmate had lobbed a small rock, which struck Yousef directly in his pupil. A doctor at a local clinic stopped the bleeding, but claimed there was nothing more he could do. Mother and father then decided to take matters into their own hands.
“I couldn’t wait for the hospitals in Gaza,” said Yousef’s father, who declined to disclose his name. “I knew [bringing Yousef through the smuggling tunnels] would be dangerous, but I wanted to give hope to my son to [be able] to see. The equipment, doctors and treatments are better in Egypt.”
Only two days after the injury occurred in the fall of 2009, Yousef’s mother carried him under the Egyptian border through a 4-foot-wide passageway owned by a family friend. Her husband encouraged her to go, figuring that women and children are less likely to be jailed by the Egyptian police. She reasoned that there was no other way to get Yousef quality medical help right away. The border was closed as usual; even when it was open, Palestinians without entry visas were not allowed in. And permits to get medical treatment in Israel were difficult to obtain.
“[As I crawled through the tunnel to Egypt], I wasn’t thinking about the fear or the danger. I was only thinking about my son.” Yousef’s mother recalled. “He was crying in the tunnel. He was very afraid. He said, 'I don’t want to go to Egypt.' ... On the way back to Gaza, I felt afraid that the tunnel might collapse.”
Yousef and his mother spent about 15 minutes underground traversing to Egypt. While most tunnel owners charge about $2,000 to smuggle a person in one direction, Yousef and his mother traveled for free. They managed to evade the Egyptian police, but doctors at the Egyptian hospital could not completely repair Yousef's eye. The giggly seven-year-old still roughhouses with his friends, but with sight only in his right eye.
Yousef and his mother are among many people who travel through the tunnels for the same diverse reasons that they would cross a legal border. Some go from Gaza to Egypt to work in other countries. Others seek to escape problems in Gaza. Still others visit sick relatives on the other side. Women from Russia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Sudan come through the tunnels to marry Gazan men.
Activists and freelance journalists denied Gaza entry visas are rumored to have entered through the tunnels.
The tunnels along the seven-mile Gaza-Egypt border are most typically used to bring fuel, appliances, building materials, car parts and other commodities banned under Israel's economic blockade, which is aimed at isolating Hamas. The World Bank reports that about 80 percent of Gaza’s imports now come through the tunnels.
Before Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August of 2005, most tunnels were hidden inside homes and used for weapons smuggling. Now, hundreds of white tents covering tunnel entrances are perched near the border for all to see. Explosives, guns, and supplies used to build Qassam rockets are still snuck into Gaza through the tunnels, despite Israeli and Egyptian efforts to clamp down on militant groups.
According to one tunnel owner named Abu Wadeya, only about 20 tunnels existed when he started his “business” in 2005. By the time Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June of 2007, the tunnel industry had begun to proliferate. Abu Wadeya claims there are now more than 1500 tunnels.
“Right now, if you have a tunnel, it’s like you have a shop,” he said. “[Five years ago], if you had a tunnel, you would be rich.”
While tunnel workers used to come only from Rafah, desperate men and boys from across Gaza are now risking death and arrest to earn some income. Some of these workers are children, whose nimble bodies can more easily navigate the narrow passageways. Dozens of Gazans have been killed in tunnel collapses and in Israeli bombings of the tunnels. Others have died as a result of gas leaks, falling rocks and electrocution.
The Egyptian government is currently constructing a 115-foot subterranean barrier aimed at destroying the tunnels. They seek to stop the flow of weapons into Gaza and prevent the travel of Palestinian militants into Egypt. According to Abu Wadeya, the subterranean barrier will likely spawn the creation of “deeper, more dangerous tunnels.”
Meanwhile, travel through the tunnels continues. Among the Gazan women who made the perilous journey is 60-year-old Um Waleed. Two years ago, she crossed the legal border into Egypt on route to Saudi Arabia for the Islamic pilgrimage. However, she returned a few weeks later to find the border closed. Loath to wait for the border to reopen, she accepted a friend’s offer to take her through a tunnel free-of-charge.
“I just said ‘God is with me,’ and I didn’t worry,” Um Waleed said, smiling and raising her chin. “There was electricity and a fan inside the tunnel. I sat by [the fan] to take a long rest. And I prayed inside the tunnel. I prayed again and again.”