Entering Gaza by ‘subway’

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

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.

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