As Truce Teeters, Gaza's Tunnelers Dig Undeterred

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Patrick Baz / AFP / Getty

A Palestinian enters a tunnel in the southern Gaza Strip on Jan. 24 that runs under the Egyptian border and into Gaza at Rafah

With the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas militants on the verge of collapse, the most dangerous job in Gaza — digging tunnels into Egypt — just got a lot more dangerous. Destroying the tunnels that allowed the import of both vital food and fuel supplies denied Gazans by the Israeli blockade — but that also enabled the ferrying of weapons to Hamas — was a key objective of Israel's 22-day military operation, and its aircraft and artillery pounded the sandy patch of land along the Egyptian border in the hope of collapsing them. But as soon as the truce was declared, the diggers got busy again, using shovels and jackhammers to repair tunnels caved in by bombing and to begin burrowing new ones.

Negotiations in Cairo over terms for extending the current truce have reached an impasse: Israel is offering an 18-month cease-fire that would involve only a partial opening of the sealed border crossings into Gaza from Egypt and Israel, while Hamas is demanding a complete reopening of the crossings as part of a one-year truce. And that stalemate could bring more trouble for the tunnelers. Egyptian authorities evacuated the Rafah border crossing on Sunday, acting on reports of a possible Israeli air strike on tunnelers. And as Israeli planes streaked across the sky, the diggers scrambled away from their tunnels — only to return once the planes had gone. (See images of heartbreak in the Gaza conflict.)

Israel has vowed to finish the job of sealing the tunnels to prevent Hamas from acquiring longer-range missiles — and has sought international cooperation to close the arms pipeline — but achieving that won't be easy. Israel's blockade has left Gaza's 1.5 million residents relying on the tunnels as their economic lifeline. Everything from medicine to cement to chocolate bars to lion cubs for the zoo has entered Gaza through hundreds of deep, sandy holes. Says Aymad, a tunnel digger who wears a Palestinian kaffiyeh wrapped around his head: "The Israelis destroyed dozens of tunnels, but many more are left undamaged, and as long as they keep us under siege, we will keep digging more."

Since the cease-fire, the tunnelmakers have become more brazen. They dig in plain sight of the Egyptian border watchtowers and Israeli surveillance aircraft, with a large bubble of tattered plastic over each entrance. Thousands of Gazans swarm around the pitted, sandy area because the tunnels are now the enclave's biggest source of employment. The men carry shovels, ropes and stacks of wooden slats used to reinforce the tunnels where cave-ins are nearly as big a danger as Israeli bombs. Others emerge from the plastic bubbles carting away goods destined for merchants throughout Gaza, who placed orders weeks before. Some canny traders pipe gasoline through their holes. Israeli planes blasted apartment buildings along the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing, but the tunnelers cleared the collapsed debris and started digging again.

"It's a lie to say that we use these tunnels to only bring in weapons. We're bringing in the ordinary stuff that keeps Gaza alive. If the Israelis opened the border crossings, we wouldn't have to be doing this," says Mohammed, a gap-toothed man in his 40s whose cap is emblazoned with a Koranic verse that he hopes will protect him from being buried alive when the Israeli fighter-bombers reappear in the skies over Gaza.

The tunnels are usually about 80 ft. deep, and the longest ones run for more than a mile before popping open in the basement of a smuggler's house on the Egyptian side. A team of diggers is paid $100 for each meter and can clear away 10 meters in a hard day's work. "It's crazy down there," says Aymad. "Many times, when we're digging, we'll run into another tunnel." Aymad once brought his 2-year-old boy into the tunnel, he says, "so he can see what his father is forced to do for a living. We Gazans like the open sky, the sea. Not this. We don't like going into the ground." He keeps a photo in his cell phone of himself and his bawling son crouched together in a narrow tunnel. "He stopped crying once we got back under the sky," Aymad reassures me.

The diggers at Rafah all insist that Hamas and the other militant groups operate their own tunnels, supposedly steel-ribbed and large enough for a car to pass through. But it's not a subject they're willing to discuss with journalists in a crowd that could contain a Hamas informer. Since the fighting with Israel, the militants have been going around shooting the kneecaps of suspected collaborators. Later, a bearded youth named Mohamed took me aside to say that Hamas' smuggling will never be stopped because it was being helped by "mens with guns who are hiding in the mountains of Sinai." He adds enigmatically, "The Egyptians are afraid of these men." Some Israeli intelligence reports say that al-Qaeda has found supporters among the Bedouin tribes of Sinai who chafe under the repression of the Egyptian army and that they may be finding common cause with Gaza's militants.

Israel secured pledges from Egypt, the European Union and the U.S. to stop the weapons flow into Gaza. But Gazans are worried that if the tunnels are closed, that could cut off the few threads of commerce and supplies leading into Gaza. "If Israel keeps the borders sealed off, we'll keep digging, and only Allah can stop us. Let the Israelis drop their bombs. Without the tunnels, we can't survive anyway," says Aymad. "And if a bomb catches me underground, well, they won't have to dig my grave."

See pictures of 60 years of Israel.

See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.