Ha’aretz gives us an inside look at the tunnels and their diggers. It turns out these “entrepreneurs” can make $500,000 with one tunnel that survives a very short time. Also, those home owners – you know, the ones Rachel Corrie was protecting – can make as much as $30,000 for hosting a tunnel in their home.
It’s a good read.
Edit on June 26, 2006: I am adding the article itself because it has become impossible to locate it via the link and very challenging on Google.
Last update – 14:50 29/09/2005
By Shlomi Eldar
A splendid Hamas-style beard conceals a very young, boyish face. Only the adult gaze seems to contradict the youthful features. Jaber is 18. His occupation: tunnel excavator. He didn’t understand that he was actually given the green light by his employers to tell “the Jew” about his singular profession. He was dumbstruck. The mature
gaze turned into a look of surprise. Secrecy is one of the most important terms of acceptance into a profession that only Rafah could have invented for the local unemployed. The economic ray of light in the city is literally at the end of the tunnel.
Sitting next to Jaber are two of his professional colleagues, Muans and Daud. Both of them, like Jaber, possess a skill which only very unusual or very desperate people are endowed with. All three have the ability to work for long hours underground: Like moles they carve their way relentlessly to the other side. All three prefer the dark of the tunnel to the light of Rafah, which has never done anything for them. With infinite patience, astonishing mental calm and the determination to push forward, they are not deterred by sand, the suffocating conditions or the lack of air.
How is it possible for someone to be “buried” 12 meters underground for hours at a stretch? They smile bashfully at the question and reply almost in a chorus. “It is nothing, it is not as terrible as it sounds. It’s cool down there. Even pleasant.” That’s right pleasant.
For years I have been trying to locate the tunnel diggers in Rafah and their employers, to interview them, but I never succeeded. Until now.
The Israel Defense Forces was ensconced on the so-called Philadelphi road between Gaza and Rafah and waged a losing battle against the most profitable business in the Gaza
Strip. The army built an ugly, rusty steel wall along the road, believing that by “burying” the wall’s foundations six meters underground they would create a tough barrier that the excavator hire team would find difficult to breach. Above ground were five huge concrete bases and around them were tanks, armored vehicles and sophisticated observation and night-vision instruments. But below the diggers deepened the tunnel to 12 meters and rendered useless both the wall and the state-of-the-art defensive equipment above them.
The result was that the top of the steel wall remained suspended in the air, its legs buried six meters down, but not deep enough to stop the human moles, whose simple means made a mockery of the technology that was mustered to try to stop them. The Philadelphi wall remains one more ugly addition to the ugly landscape of Rafah, a wall that is of no use and that offers no deterrence.
Wall of silence
In a previous attempt to organize a meeting with the Rafah moles, “informed sources” said: “Are you crazy? Who will agree to put $150,000 at risk so that you can write an article?” Is that the cost of a tunnel, I asked. “No, it costs less to dig a tunnel today, a lot less, the price has gone down,” they explained.
It turns out that the IDF’s struggle against the diggers and against the owners of the tunnels was not totally in vain. It greatly reduced the technical level of the tunnels, and the cost of digging them declined accordingly. Unlike in the past, the tunnel owners, the “entrepreneurs,” understood that there is no chance of building a tunnel that will last for years, so they decided to go for an “instant” tunnel for one good arms-smuggling operation, or at most two, before it would be discovered.
When the IDF left the Gaza Strip this month, the fear of discovery did not vanish entirely, but the tension decreased tremendously. If in the past a reasonable suspicion about the existence of a tunnel led to the firing of a shell at it, now, with the Palestinian Authority in charge of one side of Philadelphi, such a suspicion will lead at most to a few days’ interrogation and detention. The risk justifies the huge price that is guaranteed to the tunnel artists.
My “contact,” whose identity I promised to keep secret, got me in contact with the diggers, on the condition that I would not photograph the faces of “the children” or
their present “place of work.” In the meeting they were mute and silent, incapable of opening up and revealing trade secrets. I suggested that we begin by touring the
smuggling route, in the hope that the wall of silence between us would be breached as the residents of Rafah breached the actual steel wall, which overnight became a
makeshift transit point between Sinai and Gaza. For a few days the smuggling route moved above ground, driving down the price of the smuggled goods by dozens of percent and
leaving the tunnel owners fearful of losing their highly lucrative source of livelihood.
“Don’t worry,” they told me, “the border will be closed again, the way it was. The owners of the tunnels will see to it that it does not become wide open.”
“If so, instead of an agreement with Egypt, Israel could have made an agreement with the owners of tunnels and appointed you people to guard the closed border,” I said, and they all laughed at the idea, which to them did not actually sound so far-fetched. Below the road are dozens of dormant tunnels, some of which were destroyed by the IDF but every tunnel can be restored, they say as experts. If the opening is destroyed, a new opening is dug from a different direction, the tunnel is accessed from the middle and so hundreds of meters are saved, after having been dug arduously in the course of months.
Nearly all the tunnels that the IDF destroyed are now undergoing a rehabilitation process. The diggers relate that the owners whose tunnels were discovered and destroyed want to save their enormous financial investment and are already looking for or have already found a new route that will connect them to the section of the tunnel that was not blocked.
“Look at this excavation,” Jaber says, pointing and guffawing. “This is what the Jews managed to do. There was a tunnel here not serious.” By which he means that it was built by amateurs in a sensitive location, exactly beneath the guarded steel wall, was not deep enough and was discovered. An IDF bulldozer’s teeth exposed the winding tunnel and left a kind of curving, deep wadi in its place. The three showed me the now-closed opening, but I could not easily distinguish between a heap of earth and the opening of a tunnel in whose construction tens of thousands of dollars were invested.
How many tunnels are below us here?
Muans, laughing: “Ho a lot.”
How many? Twenty?
“More. Maybe a hundred all along the border, but not all of them are active, especially now after the price went down and the new situation with the Egyptians isn’t clear yet. Everyone is on hold, waiting to see how business will be renewed.”
The smuggling market
To own a tunnel in Rafah is a profitable business. The cost of building an average one, 800 meters long, from the nearby Brazil neighborhood or another one in the vicinity, is approximately $30,000. Another $30,000 has to be added to the cost for paying the owner of the house under which the tunnel is dug a great deal of money in Gaza terms but a drop in the ocean compared to the profits a good tunnel can yield with Gaza’s craving for imported merchandise.
As in the stock market, as in any active capital market, here, too, there are ups and downs in the prices of the “goods.” When the market was dry and the smuggling route operated lethargically, the price of a Kalashnikov assault rifle soared to $600. In a routine, active market the price ranges between $250 and $300, a price that every
sensible person with an instinct for survival can afford in order to safeguard himself and his family.
When the border was breached and the smuggling proceeded freely, the price of a Kalashnikov plummeted to below $200 almost below cost price, according to the tunnel index. Smart “entrepreneurs” have stopped all subterranean activity until the market regains its balance and gets back to normal operations.
Supply and demand also affect the salary of the “moles.” In “good” periods a master excavator could make almost 50 Jordanian dinars (NIS 325) in a day. The first and second
assistants to the team head earn between 30 and 40 dinars, a huge salary in Rafah and Gaza terms.
An active tunnel can yield for the entrepreneur and his partners close to $500,000 in one smuggling operation. Just about everything is smuggled: weapons, ammunition,
explosive charges, hand grenades, drugs and other in-demand merchandise in the Gaza market which Egyptian merchants can offer in abundance. But not only merchandise has passed through the tunnels. People sought by the authorities in Egypt and there are no few of them who flee the wrath of the Mukhbarat, the Egyptian secret service found “political asylum” in Gaza. For 20,000 dinars, the smuggling tunnel can become an escape route. The Rafah entrepreneurs will be pleased to offer a one-way ticket without stewardesses, without meals and without passenger insurance for escapees from Egypt or for those wishing to return to Gaza but have been blocked by Israel.
Sami Abu Samahadana, from a famous family of wanted individuals, is one of those who took this route. Samahadana traveled to Egypt for treatment with the authorization of the Israeli government under then prime minister Ehud Barak. By the time the treatment was completed, elections had been held in Israel and the new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, refused to allow him to return. One night he entered a tunnel and the next morning he was home. Since then he has been wanted by the Israeli authorities.
Esprit de corps
We are touring the city of Rafah and the neighborhoods along the border. The diggers wanted to test me, to gauge my reliability before showing me the real thing. The “foreplay” lasts a few hours, during which I learn the secrets of the profession.
We sat on mattresses and pillows in a rented apartment in Rafah’s Brazil neighborhood and they made tea and coffee alternately. First the bitter black coffee sadah in their
argot is served; then extremely sweet tea to dissipate the bitterness; and finally the “real” coffee. As we take the tea and coffee together, after they are persuaded that I
have come solely for journalistic purposes and have not been sent by the yahud (Jews) to collect intelligence about them, they reveal another aspect of the trade secrets.
After a suitable house has been located under which a tunnel can be dug, the entrepreneur negotiates its purchase with the owner. The only condition for the deal to go through: Everyone in the family will continue to live in the house and go about their business routinely. Even the neighbors must not know. The smallest mistake and everyone is in danger. In the tunnel business, every mistake is fateful, every mistake puts life at risk.
Daud sipped his tea, lit a cigarette and continued: “The entrepreneur asks the owner how much the house costs. And he tells him, my house is worth 3,000 dinars. Ya’ani, he
exaggerated the price of the house, which is perforated from bullets that slammed into it all through the intifada. But the merchant does not argue. Take 10,000 in cash and another 10,000 when the work is done, he says, on condition that you all live in one room and don’t say a word about the work. The deal is closed with a handshake and in the hope that all of them will benefit from the transaction.”
“Partnership is also possible,” Jaber adds. “If there is a big house, in which all the unoccupied rooms can be filled with the sand instead of dealing with dangerous removal,
the owner haggles with the entrepreneur and demands part of the profits.”
Daud: “After the house is purchased, we wait two weeks to a month to see how the people behave. Only after that do we start to plan the work and bring in the tools, slowly,
without the neighbors seeing or knowing that anything is going on. We start the noisy work of digging a hole in the floor of the house. And from there we begin.”
How many people take part?
Daud: `It depends on the urgency and on the length of the tunnel. Usually six people work for half a year in two shifts. From 6 A.M. until 2 P.M., and then the second shift comes in.`
Two shifts, day after day, eight hours a shift, with two breaks to eat and rest. Like any organized workplace. They talked about their work as though they were digging in a coal mine. But here there is no organizing and there are no unions and there is no struggle for better conditions. This is a cohesive group filled with esprit de corps.
Teamwork is a necessary condition for success: There is no room for individualism or for idleness. Only thus is it possible to survive underground and even `to enjoy the work,` they say.
Jaber, Muans and Daud are an `A-team,` reading each other`s feelings with a wink of the eye or a movement of an eyebrow, understanding each other`s wishes. `When you dig there is no time and no place to quarrel,` they explain. `If someone is angry at someone, he has no place to go, he has to stay next to him with his back bent, so we prefer not to quarrel.`
The desert-type sand and the soft loess soil of Rafah are the `dream` of every excavator. The three have learned the features and advantages of the good earth. Daud usually takes the lead in the work. He is the chief digger, the team leader, equipped with a kind of small sickle that he made himself. His friends have heavier equipment shovels, a hoe and carts, which they pull by hand with the help of cables that are stretched along the entire length of the tunnel. Muans (or Jaber) fill the carts with sand that Daud provides in abundance and sends them back. The last person in the chain empties the sand into bags that will be emptied only when the area will be clear. `There
is a kind of electrical digging tool that revolves like a fan, but it is not convenient, it makes a lot of dust and sends sand flying, which makes it hard to work,` Daud says. In the tunnel business, too, it turns out, manual labor is more efficient than any modern instruments.
How high is a tunnel? Can you stand up in it?
Muans: `No way. A tunnel you can stand up in costs twice as much and is 20 times as dangerous for the workers. Do you know that one square meter of digging fills a whole
cart with sand? So why take chances? There is no reason.`
Daud: `A tunnel is no more than 80 centimeters high, and that is enough for us to crawl on our knees and work comfortably. When I want to rest, I dig a little space to the side, like a bed, rest, put one foot on the other, a quarter of an hour, half an hour, and even smoke a cigarette. When I finish resting, I get out of the bed, fold it up and go back to work.`
Muans and Jaber burst out laughing at these images, which are taken from life `on top` a bed and relaxing with one foot on the other.
You talk about this work like it is great fun.
Jaber, seriously: `Do you know how quiet it is there?`
After 50 meters of digging, the work of navigation begins. Jaber shows me a telescopic pipe, which he calls a masura, which he uses as a periscope, like a submarine sending up an eye to look outside, to ascertain that the world up there still exists. `We have a compass, but I don`t rely on it. After 50 meters we always stop and start drilling a hole upward. The propeller tool is connected to the generator and starts to tunnel into the earth, like a drill. When it reaches the top I look out and see whether
I have not made a mistake in direction. Do you know what laughs we had? We have already tunnels in Rafah that were so amateurish that they almost went back to the starting
When he said `amateurish,` he filled his lungs to demonstrate his expertise in the profession he has acquired.
How long have you been in this profession?
Jaber: `Three years, almost. My brother, Ahmed, was also in this business, but now he has retired.`
Daud started as Ahmed`s assistant until, he says, he became a greater expert than his teacher. `Daud has a wonderful sense of smell,` his buddies said.
Sense of smell?
`Yes, because that is a very important sense for identifying dangers.`
A real professional is able to evade the dangers that a tunnel poses. The greatest danger is the presence of groundwater, which can flood the tunnel and bring about its collapse. The IDF caught on to this, apparently. `The Jews, the whores, would send water deep into the ground so we would be hurt.`
But the diggers learned how to cope with the danger of flooding, too. Daud`s famous `sense of smell` did not disappoint. `I can smell water from a long way,` he boasts. `I smell it through my fingers. When my fingers feel damp sand, I stop and think right away. My life and the life of my friends depend on it. Sometimes, when the water starts, I quickly spread a nylon sheet and attach a board to it, which closes all the openings. After that I dig in a different direction, to bypass the water obstacle. Sometimes I need to dig another hundred meters to get by the dampness, but that`s how it is, that`s
Two years ago, three diggers were killed in a tunnel that collapsed on them after it was flooded by groundwater. That `work accident` has had a major impact on Daud and his group, who understood that no one is immune and it could happen to them, too. `It took three days until their bodies were evacuated, for three days it was impossible to get them out because everything collapsed. We had to coordinate with the Jews to get them out even when we die, we need approval from the Jews to get out,` Daud laughs.
What about air, oxygen? Do you work with oxygen tanks?
`Are you kidding?` they reply together, as though I had insulted them, as though I saw them as amateurs who are unable to dig in a way that will allow air to enter the tunnel. `How can you work with that? You have to know how to behave there, below, to breathe regularly,` Jaber says. `There is plenty of air, you can breathe without any problem. We bring in a compressor that injects air all the time, so it`s just like being above ground, there is no difference. I told you we even smoke cigarettes.`
Work in progress
We went to see a new tunnel a work in progress. Daud, Jaber and Muans did not get authorization to show me one that was already being used for smuggling. `The owners
are afraid and we cannot put them at risk,` I was told by the `contact` who put me in touch with the three. `We have responsibility toward them and we gave them our word of
honor.` Still, when we passed by a certain house during the trip, Muans had us stop a ways off and said that there had been an active tunnel under that house.
`Do you know what went on there?` Jaber said. `The tunnel owner, the `entrepreneur,` would come in a Mercedes, park it by the side, go into the house and come out in an Isuzu van to scatter the sand. That is how he was discovered. Idiot.`
Indeed, disposing of the sacks of sand is the most sensitive task in the tunnel business. `You will not find even one empty sack in Rafah. Who is crazy enough to throw
a sack of sand into the sea in front of everyone with the zanana (aircraft piloted by remote control) in the sky or the street full of good people who want to inform on you
to the sulta (the Palestinian Authority)?`
So how do you get rid of the sand?
`It is all in Khan Yunis. All the sand of Rafah moved to Khan Yunis.` They are all amused by the joke.
But how do you get the sacks into the car?
`You take the car in, from the courtyard into the house, and you quietly load it and quietly head for Khan Yunis. You pour out the stuff and come back.`
By a rough estimate, a tunnel that is 80 centimeters wide, 80 centimeters high and 800 meters long will produce more than 750 tons of sand to be got rid of.
We stop near a house that was partially destroyed by a bulldozer. `When the Jews passed by here they damaged this house. But it`s nothing. People live here.` The trio led me into the house from the back, so the tenants would not see that a stranger was with them.
The excavation from this house is being made not from inside but from below, next to the foundations. A green tarpaulin has been put up to hide the work. We enter carefully, quietly. One by one. Next to the tarpaulin sacks of sand are waiting to be taken away. Dozens of white bags filled with Rafah sand, which have been removed from the bowels of the earth and will soon be on their way to neighboring Khan Yunis.
`Go in,` they urge me. `Go in, don`t be afraid.`
At the bottom of a two-meter pit I started to crawl into the tunnel, into the earth, flabbergasted at the thought that anyone could call this a pleasant place. I remembered
the film `Being John Malkovich` the people who had to work in an office that was only half a floor high, walking bent over and feeling suffocated, so you wanted to stretch as
soon as you came out of the movie.
My escorts saw the look of fear on my face and started to tease the cowardly Jew. `Go on in, we are here,` Jaber said loudly, to infuse me with confidence that, should anything happen, I was with people who were experts in rescue. Everything was dark. Pitch black. No one had bothered to bring lighting equipment, and the generator was not working either, for this coerced and unplanned visit.
Since the upheaval in local life the Israelis leaving the Philadelphi road and being replaced by the Egyptians tunneling has stopped for a time, as everyone waits to see
which way the wind is blowing.`
The Egyptians don`t kid around,` Jaber says. `There, on the other side, if they find a house where a tunnel has been dug, it is the death penalty for everyone. There are no games. With them the law is the law and punishment is punishment. So we do not go into the houses with the tunnels there, no family will agree to that. We leave via orchards and groves, which are camouflaged well. There is a liaison man there who gets $1,000 just to guard the opening and to open and close it when needed. That is his work.`
I sat at the opening of the tunnel, barely able to breathe, whether due to fear or because I am not suited to the tunnel-digging trade. I had gone down barely two meters and still had 10 to go to reach the bottom. Imagine a four-story building, but all of it underground.
With gestures Jaber explained the structure of the excavation a half-crescent that reaches a low point and then starts to rise into the Egyptian section of Rafah. Eight hundred meters, sometimes less, with each meter calculated like a complex engineering project
How is the cooperation on the other side arranged?
Jaber: `We have guys there who wait for us to get below them and then guide us there so that we will get to the finishing point.`
`Yes, by telephone.`
`And do you know what?` Muans adds. `Now that so many people moved from here to there, a lot of people bought houses in good places and they are waiting for us to get to them there to dig tunnels from their houses. They think they will make a little money from the new situation.`
Does the PA fight against the tunnels?
Jaber`s breath could be heard, before he replied. A kind of sigh of relief at the new situation, though the words he spoke were apparently intended for Israeli ears. `They
are working seriously, Preventive Security. They have a unit with the mission of locating and destroying tunnels. They are more serious now than ever, they want to prove
that they are in control of the situation.`
In the same breath he describes how Preventive Security itself purchased hundreds of rifles as well as ammunition that were smuggled into Gaza through tunnels. `Preventive
Security has no weapons. They are still using the old weapons and they had no way of buying something new at reasonable prices. You could say that the fact that the IDF left saved them when it comes to weapons. That was the opportunity they were waiting for.`
My `contact` also took advantage of the anarchy at the breached border immediately after the IDF pullout: He bought 50 hand grenades for $250 each, he said, `because here in Gaza no one knows what tomorrow will bring.`
We emerged from the uncompleted tunnel and went back to the apartment for more tea and coffee. The `contact` asked what I intended to write. I replied that I would write what they had told me, no more and no less. `Just don`t make problems for us with the sulta,` he warned. `Write that they are doing a great job, that they are working energetically to prevent the excavations.`