Conflict & Justice

A Journey into the Tunnels of Gaza


The Tunnels of Gaza. National Geographic, December 2012

As the violence in the Middle East continues, one detail fascinated us here at The World. We kept reading that Israeli air strikes have targeted a series of tunnels that connect Gaza with Egypt.

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It turns out that James Verini, working with photographer Paolo Pellegrin, put together a feature on these tunnels for the December issue of National Geographic Magazine.

And here's an excerpt from Verini's story:

After Israel introduced the blockade, smuggling became Gaza's alternative. Through the tunnels under Rafah came everything from building materials and food to medicine and clothing, from fuel and computers to livestock and cars. Hamas smuggled in weapons. New tunnels were dug by the day–by the hour, it seemed–and new fortunes minted. Families sold their possessions to buy in. Some 15,000 people worked in and around the tunnels at their peak, and they provided ancillary work for tens of thousands more, from engineers and truck drivers to shopkeepers. Today Gaza's underground economy accounts for two-thirds of consumer goods, and the tunnels are so common that Rafah features them in official brochures.

"We did not choose to use the tunnels," a government engineer told me. "But it was too hard for us to stand still during the siege and expect war and poverty." For many Gazans, the tunnels, lethal though they can be, symbolize better things: their native ingenuity, the memory and dream of mobility, and perhaps most significant for a population defined by dispossession, a sense of control over the land. The irony that control must be won by going beneath the land is not lost on Gazans…

But Gaza is the heart of Palestinian resistance. It's been the launching area for a campaign, now in its third decade, of kidnappings, suicide bombings, and rocket and mortar assaults on Israel by Gazan militants–much of this sanctioned, if not expressly carried out, by Hamas.

The tunnels supply the government with all the materials used in public works projects, and Hamas taxes everything that comes through them, shutting down operators who don't pay up. Tunnel revenue is estimated to provide Hamas with as much as $750 million a year. Hamas has also smuggled in cash from exiled leaders and patrons in Syria, Iran, and Qatar that helps keep it afloat.