Entering Gaza by ‘subway’

“There’s an odd, unnerving sensation about trying to cross a border without the consent of the authorities.” - Robert Fisk, The War of Civilization.

peled
Entering the tunnel to Gaza (Photo: Miko Peled)

I had been trying to visit Gaza for several years, but all my attempts were unsuccessful. So when the opportunity to enter via a tunnel arose, I seized it. I spent the night before my trip in my mother’s house on the outskirts of Jerusalem, but I didn’t sleep very well. I woke up that morning stressed and in a bad mood. My flight to the resort city of Eilat, the southern most tip of Israel, was departing out of Sde Dov airport, a small airfield in central Tel Aviv. There is no direct bus or taxi service to this airport and I was hoping someone would give me a ride but driving into Tel Aviv in the morning, even late morning, traffic is terrible so I took a bus to Tel Aviv and then a cab from there to Sde Dov.

“Did you arrive from overseas?” the security officer at the airport barked at me as I showed her my Israeli passport. I always have rotten luck with those guys.

“What? No, I live overseas so when I am in Israel I use my passport as my ID.”

“Who packed your bags? Did anyone give you something to take? I ask because it could be a bomb,” she went on with that annoying chain of questions as I nodded yes and no in response.

It was three weeks earlier that I got a message from a Facebook friend asking if I would consider visiting Gaza, and would I be willing to enter through a tunnel. Never was the word “yes” typed so fast. This would be my third attempt to enter Gaza, the first two ending in failure. Because I am an Israeli citizen, Israeli law prohibits my entry into Gaza and Egyptian authorities have denied me entry to Gaza for reasons beyond my understanding. So when the suggestion to use the “subway” came up it was a sure yes.

I landed in Eilat around noon and took a cab from the airport to the Egyptian border. I walked past the Israeli border guards, dressed casually yet alert behind their dark sunglasses, with special issued M-16 semi automatic rifles hanging from their shoulders. Then I walked past the Egyptian guards dressed in police uniforms, sitting comfortably in chairs, smiling as they asked me for a tip.

My friend, who had suggested the trip, and a driver, a young Palestinian from Rafah with a shiny, not-so-new Hyundai Sedan, were both waiting for me as I crossed the border into Egypt. All we had to do now was cross one more Egyptian checkpoint and then drive north towards the city of Rafah on the Northeastern most tip of the Sinai Peninsula. The tunnels go from Rafah into the Gaza strip. But the Egyptian officer in charge of the checkpoint had other plans for us.

After an hour-long interrogation and thorough search of the Hyndai, he allowed our driver to proceed, but not north where we wanted to go, south along the coast. In spiteof of our insistence to the contrary, he obviously suspected we were headed towards Gaza and that did not sit well with him. There was no room for discussion. It was either go south or head back to the border.

Our driver was very angry. As the barrier was lifted he hit the accelerator and tore down the road south, unsure how he was going to get us to Rafah. He made a few phone calls and learned that if he drove south for about an hour, he could take a road that cuts west through the middle of the Sinai desert. Driving for a couple of hundred miles, he could then hit the road north toward Rafah. A three-hour drive just turned into eight driving 90 mph most of the way.

By the time we reached the northern part of Sinai it was already dark. We drove through small towns and saw people sitting in the shadows, by a vegetable stand, a corner store or a roadside cafe. Our driver suggested we keep our windows rolled up, because if the locals or any security personnel see the two foreigners in the car (me and my very Western looking Palestinian friend) they would surely begin to ask questions. At one point, a group of men dressed in traditional Bedouin robes and scarves stood blocking the road. Our driver slowly brought the car to a halt and I noticed one of them holding an AK-47 Kalashnikov. We held our breath as they exchanged a few words with our driver, and then they allowed us to proceed. “They just wanted to know what family I am from” our driver explained calmly. “They know that I am from a local family so we are fine.”

Our contacts in Rafah began calling my friend, concerned the tunnel will be closed for the night. “Only goods are allowed at night, people are only permitted to cross during the day,” they explained. I was told that close to 1,500 tunnels exist along the narrow, seven-mile stretch that divides the Gaza strip from Egypt’s Sinai desert.

When we arrived in Rafah it was dark and very cold. Our driver parked the Hyundai by his house. It had performed spectacularly well so we nicknamed it “el Dababa,” The Tank. He then took us to his house to wait while my friend was on the phone coordinating with people to pick us up and take us to the tunnel.

The transfer of goods and people, especially food and medicine through the tunnels is crucial for people in Gaza. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 54% of Gazans are food insecure, which in layman’s terms means no regular access to food, and constant hunger. 85% of Gaza’s fishing waters are inaccessible due to Israeli military measures. Over 90% of the water from the Gaza aquifer is undrinkable. This means that water, food and other vital supplies have to come in through the tunnel. What makes this reality absurd is that it is only fifteen minutes drive from Israeli farms and cities where food and water are clean and plentiful. I was told, that an official governmental office in Gaza oversees the tunnel traffic.

Max Gaylard, the former UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator, who I met in Jerusalem, told me that the lion’s share of Gaza’s government funds comes from outside sources and into Gaza through the tunnels. Due to the severity of the economic situation imposed by Israel, the government in Gaza cannot raise the funds necessary to operate through tax collection, so millions of dollars have to be brought in each month and the tunnels are the only channels available.

Last August, Mr. Gaylard spoke at a press conference launching a UN report on the conditions in Gaza. “Gaza will have half a million more people by 2020.” “In consequence, the people of Gaza will have an even harder time getting enough drinking water and electricity, or sending their children to school,” Gaylard said.

The report says that, “By 2020, electricity provision will need to double to meet demand, damage to the coastal aquifer will be irreversible without immediate remedial action, and hundreds of new schools and expanded health services will be needed for an overwhelmingly young population.”

Today, Gaza is an essentially urban economy, isolated and kept alive through external funding, the illegal tunnel economy, and the ingenuity and persistence of its people. “An urban area cannot survive without being connected,” said Mr. Gaylard.

“Gaza remains subject to severe restrictions on imports, exports and the movement of people, by land, air and sea, as a result of the blockade Israel imposed on the area by Israel for what it calls security reasons.” The report states.

Since it was already late the tunnel was no longer open for people to cross so we had to wait. And then it dawned on me: After a grueling fourteen hours that included an hour flight and a ten hour drive, and several hours waiting, a mere one hour and a twenty minutes of leisurely drive separated me from the house I left that morning on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

We waited for about an hour when a brown, beat up, 1970’s Mercedes diesel drove up the alley towards us. The driver, a bearded man wearing a brown robe and a soft woolen hat took our luggage and placed it in the trunk. We got in the back seat and waited.

It felt as though I was in a romanticized war-against-terror movie, and that at any moment someone who looks like our driver would jump out and begin to spray us with bullets from an AK-47 or at the very least kidnap us. This romanticized version of reality would have to end with brave American or Israeli commandos armed with the finest modern weapons, rushing in to save us in a scene that would conclude with dead Arab bodies lying all around.

“Why am I thinking this?” I was amazed at how well conditioned I was to equate poverty and Arabs with irrational violence. People in this particular place suffer poverty and lawlessness due to violence inflicted upon them by Israel and neglect by corrupt Egyptian officials who fail to provide them with law, order and services.

After turning in and out of several potholed alleys our Mercedes came to a stop in front of a large metal gate. We paid the driver 10 Israeli shekels ($2.50) and he took our luggage out and gave it to another man who was waiting to take us across the tunnel. We paid him 100 Israeli Shekels, and off we went. The tunnel had already been closed for pedestrians, so special arrangements were made to let us cross. It was well lit, over six feet high and three feet across. The floor, ceiling and walls were lined with wood panels. We walked for four or five minutes until we reached the other side. Where my US passport was examined and my ID verified.

We got in a car and drove north along the coast from Rafah towards the city of Gaza. I could see the lights of Gaza fishing boats in a straight line, about three miles out. I was relieved and more than a little pleased that I had made it to Gaza, and that I had defied Israeli law. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, when injustice is law, defiance is our duty.

About Miko Peled

Miko Peled is an Israeli writer and activist living in San Diego. His book “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine” (Just World Books) was published in 2012.
Posted in Activism, Gaza, Israel/Palestine, Occupation, On the ground reports

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. Obsidian says:

    “85% of Gaza’s fishing waters are inaccessible due to Israeli military measures”

    Not quite.
    Hamas bans Gaza fishing.

    link to maannews.net

  2. RE: “Entering Gaza by ‘subway’” ~ article/post by Miko Peled

    A FASCINATING INTERVIEW (AUDIO, 43:13) WITH MIKO PELED BY PETER B. COLLINS (REQUIRES $5/MO SUBSCRIPTION):
    “Israeli-American Author and Peace Activist Miko Peled Fosters Dialogue with Palestinians, Slams Israel’s Government”, PBC podcast 733 [ 43:13 ], by Peter B. Collins (a/k/a PCB) on February 22, 2013
    • Free Preview Clip - link to peterbcollins.com

    Miko Peled, author of “The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine” offers candid, critical views of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, from 1948 to the present. Will Durst comments on the civil war inside the Republican party. Peled holds Israeli and American passports and is a professional martial artist who lives in San Diego. His book details his heritage: grandfather was a Zionist leader and signer of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, father was a young officer in the 1948 war and a top general in the 1967 war (who had a second career as a professor and back-channel negotiator with the Palestinians). Peled served in the Israeli military as required and became an activist after his 13-year-old niece was killed in a suicide attack in Jerusalm.

    We open with a chat about the Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras and its filmmaker, Emad Burnat from the West Bank Village of Bi’lin. Peled knows Burnat and his brother Iyad (who was interviewed in our podcast 701, Jan 22, 2013) and talked about Emad’s mistreatment by US Immigration at LAX when he flew in for the Oscars. Bi’lin is just one of the places that Peled has visited in his support for Palestinian rights.

    Then we mention another Oscar-nominated film, The Gatekeepers, which presents 6 former Israeli Shin Bet chiefs. Peled slams them as hypocrites, and says they should be tried at the International Criminal Court, not feted at the Oscars.

    He is equally blunt about the Israeli government, Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel, and his observations when he recently visited Gaza by using a tunnel from Egypt. And he supports a one-state solution with Palestinians as full citizens.

    At 40:45, Will Durst pops by to talk about the struggle inside the GOP.

    ● FULL PELED INTERVIEW - link to peterbcollins.com

    P.S. I have found that it works far better (flawlessly) to use iTunes for PCB podcasts rather than listening to them on the PCB website.

    • P.P.S. ANOTHER INTERESTING INTERVIEW (AUDIO, 53 min.) BY PETER B. COLLINS (REQUIRES $5/MO SUBSCRIPTION):
      Filmmaker Jean Phillippe Tremblay on “Shadows of Liberty”, Important New Documentary About Failings of US Media, PBC podcast 733 [53 minutes], by Peter B. Collins (a/k/a PCB) on April 10, 2013
      • Free Preview Clip - link to peterbcollins.com

      An important documentary just released, “Shadows of Liberty”, explores the failure of America’s consolidated corporate media to deliver critical information to viewers and readers, and its complicity with the government to censor stories that are inconvenient to advertisers, government and the media conglomerates. We talk with filmmaker Jean Phillippe Tremblay, who acknowledges that the corporate media will not cover his film or the important issues it raises. But it’s surprising that more than 50 local film festivals around the country have declined to show it. For a limited time, the film is being streamed here at no charge.

      For PBC listeners, the most notable segment of the film covers the story of Sibel Edmonds, the former FBI translator who co-hosts the Boiling Frogs interview series. Tremblay does a good job of summarizing her case and the virtual media blackout of the important charges she raised.

      The film also takes on the slimy NBC series, “To Catch a Predator”, which entrapped would-be sex criminals and generated ratings through its voyeuristic appeal. And it profiles important cases that were censored by major networks regarding Nike, TWA flight 800, the propaganda that led us into the Iraq war and more. It offers a history of the commercial media model, and presents cogent comments from more than 35 media workers and critics, including: Norman Solomon, John Nichols, Jeff Cohen, Bob McChesney, Danny Glover, Julian Assange, Dan Rather, Brad Friedman and many others [including Philip Weiss].

      Check the film’s website for more info, including a major screening in Los Angeles on April 13.

      ● FULL INTERVIEW – link to peterbcollins.com

      ● THE DOCUMENTARY “SHADOWS OF LIBERTY” (1:33:14) CAN BE VIEWED FREE OF CHARGE FOR THE NEXT WEEK OR SO AT - link to shadows.kcetlink.org

  3. Citizen says:

    Thanks for the inside data. Meanwhile, Egypt, led by the Muslim Brotherhood regime reps, is doing all it can to stifle and flood the tunnels. Israeli reps have been saying Egypt is helping Israel more than the old regime. Whatever, Obama just gave it lots of US cash to continue aiding Israel’s defense of that side of its borderless borders.

  4. Sumud says:

    Entering the tunnel to Gaza (Photo: Miko Peled)

    In future decades people will walk these tunnels as tourist attractions, amazed that the international community let the savage state of Israel get away with the hideous situation they had created in Gaza for so long.

    Yonatan Shapira, the young Israeli soldier from Breaking The Silence who went to the Warsaw Ghetto and wrote ‘Free Gaza’ on the wall, will feature in the exhibit.

    • Sumud says:

      *…will be one of many to feature in the exhibit.

    • kalithea says:

      And a book or volumes binding together activists’ experiences in regards to breaking the siege on Gaza, like this one, should also be on exhibit along with a separate account told by those who survived the Mavi Marmara voyage. As a matter of fact, they should build a museum on this site and call it: The Rachel Corrie House with all the artifacts of Israel’s destructiveness on display for the world to witness and remember, including a “wall of innocent martyrs” with the names of all the children slaughtered by Israel during the entire occupation. On second thought, there might not be room inside; they’ll need a courtyard too!

  5. Mike_Konrad says:

    What a truly amazing story!

  6. just says:

    Mr. Peled:

    I cannot thank you enough for this detailed saga– (and, it IS a very important saga)– but, I also want to thank you for your passionate humanity and empathy. It means much to so many.

    I look forward to passing this on and on– just as I have shared your talks and your book.

    (Much the same as I recommend Mondoweiss!)

    • just says:

      “It felt as though I was in a romanticized war-against-terror movie, and that at any moment someone who looks like our driver would jump out and begin to spray us with bullets from an AK-47 or at the very least kidnap us. This romanticized version of reality would have to end with brave American or Israeli commandos armed with the finest modern weapons, rushing in to save us in a scene that would conclude with dead Arab bodies lying all around.

      “Why am I thinking this?” I was amazed at how well conditioned I was to equate poverty and Arabs with irrational violence. People in this particular place suffer poverty and lawlessness due to violence inflicted upon them by Israel and neglect by corrupt Egyptian officials who fail to provide them with law, order and services.”

      What you say here is so succinct and true. It is the “conditioning” that is the crux of this. Thank you for speaking out.

  7. Inanna says:

    Well done Miko. I’d love to hear what you did in Gaza.

    • Inanna, i know he spoke at CPSD link to mondoweiss.net
      link to mondoweiss.net

      my friend Rawan met him and he signed her copy of the general’s son. she said it was the only copy in gaza. there’s actually an interesting story behind that, maybe she’ll write about it someday.

      also, i saw a photo on miko’s twitter feed today of him at the center. we’ve covered lots of events there thru our contributor yousef al jamal who works there.

  8. kalithea says:

    Heart-warming, sad, empathic and so enlightening! Thank you for shedding light on Gaza’s misery. The world cannot forget Gaza.