Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels

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Smuggling tunnel in Rafah, 2009

The Gaza Strip smuggling tunnels are passages that have been dug under the Philadelphi Corridor, a narrow strip of land, 14 km (8.699 miles) in length, situated along the border between Gaza Strip and Egypt. After the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was split by this Corridor. One part is located in the southern part of Gaza, and the smaller part of the town is in Egypt. After Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the Philadelphi Corridor was placed under the control of the Palestine Authority until 2007. When Hamas seized power in 2007, Egypt and Israel closed borders with Gaza.[1][2]

In 2009, Egypt began the construction of an underground barrier to block existing tunnels and make new ones harder to dig. In 2011, Egypt relaxed restrictions at its border with the Gaza Strip, allowing Palestinians to cross freely.[1]

In 2013–2014, Egypt's military has destroyed most of the 1,200 smuggling tunnels which were used to smuggle food, weapons and other goods into Gaza.[3]


The smuggling tunnels in the Gaza Strip are tunnels connecting both sides of the Gaza–Egypt border, used to bypass the Rafah Border Crossing, which is used for exceptional cases only, when opened at all. The first recorded discovery of a tunnel by Israel was in 1983, after Israel had withdrawn from the Sinai.[4] The border, redrawn in 1982 after the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty,[5] divided Rafah into an Egyptian and a Gazan part. The tunnels used to start from the basements of houses in Rafah on the one side of the border and end in houses in Rafah on the other side.[4]

By September 2005, after withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Israel declared that Palestinians would not have the control of their side of the checkpoint, and the Rafah crossing should be closed. During the rest of the year Egypt opened and closed the crossing intermittently. In November 2005 two agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority permitted the reopening of the crossing with third-party European Union assistance. However the movement of people would be very restricted and goods should pass through another checkpoint (Kerem Shalom), under the supervision of Israelis and monitored by EU monitors. In 2006, the Rafah crossing was opened up to June. During the rest of the year it was open during 31 days at random.[6]

In mid-2007 Hamas seized power in the Gaza Strip. Following the takeover, Egypt and Israel largely sealed their border crossings with Gaza, on the grounds that Fatah had fled and was no longer providing security on the Palestinian side.[7] So Karni and Rafah checkpoints were closed again, resulting in "severe personal and economic hardship for Gaza's 1,4 million population", according to OCHA. Thousands of travelers have been stranded on both sides of the border.[6]

The blockade of the Gaza Strip has caused a shortage of certain basic products, especially construction materials, fuel, some consumer articles, and medicines and medical supplies.[8][9] Import restrictions, including of basic building materials, have led to the proliferation of tunnels under the border with Egypt.[10][11] As Israel limits the Palestinian freedom of movement, for most Gazans the tunnels are the only way to move from and to Gaza.


The tunnels were used to smuggle a wide range of goods, including fuel, gas, cement, construction materials, raw materials, pesticides, seeds, agricultural tools, preservatives, packaging material, spare parts, livestock, zoo animals, food, medicines, clothes, car parts, building supplies, weapons and luxury items in general.[12][13] Initially, the tunnels were used for moving consumer goods and medicines. During the First Intifada (December 1987 to 1993), some, more secret, tunnels are said to be used by militant groups to bring in arms and money. became conduits for weapons and militants.[14][6]

A 2015 report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) noted that between 2007 and 2013, more than 1,532 tunnels were running under the border to mitigate the impact of the blockade on Gaza. They were closed by mid-2013. The size of the tunnel trade was even greater than the volume of trade through official channels. The tunnels had been essential to recover from the destructions during the 2008/2009 Gaza War. Based on the materials allowed in by Israel, it would have taken 80 years to rebuild the 6,000 housing units destroyed during the military operation. Thanks to the tunnel imports, it took "only" 5 years. Gaza’s sole power plant ran on diesel from Egypt brought through the tunnels in the range of 1 million litres per day before June 2013. The end of the tunnel economy makes the complete and immediate lifting of Israel’s blockade on Gaza more urgent than ever, according to UNCTAD.[12]

Construction materials[edit]

Israel restricts the importation of construction materials into the strip, to prevent their use for military purposes by Hamas. As a result, concrete and other construction materials were some of the main goods smuggled through the tunnels.[11][15]


Smuggling fuel through the tunnels has been the primary source of fuel for Gaza's only power plant. Electricity is inter alia needed for the desalination of drinking water. After Egypt demolished hundreds of tunnels in 2013 and Israel closed the Kerem Shalom Crossing, a shortage in fuel caused the shut down of the power plant.[16]

Increased fuel shortages and high prices, due to the intensified anti-tunnels measures by the Egyptian el-Sisi regime, halted the functioning of sewage treatment facilities in Gaza in 2014. Untreated waste water was pumped into the Gaza shore, causing serious environment pollution and swimming prohibition at the beaches.[17]

Transport of people[edit]

Facing the restriction of the Palestinian freedom of movement, an advanced system of human transport has been established, including the issue of tickets which serve as a travel permit. A travel ticket from and to Gaza may cost between $30 and $300 (2012), depending from the provided service. As of 2012, travelling by car was possible. Travelling through the tunnels was popular during Ramadan in 2012. As travelling through the Israeli crossings is only permitted by exception, and the Rafah Crossing is opened for limited periods, if opened at all, the tunnels have often become the only outlet for the strip’s residents[18]

Use of child labor[edit]

According to an article by Nicolas Pelham in the IPS Journal of Palestine Studies, child labor is employed in the smuggling tunnels with the justification that children are more "nimble." Despite calls from human rights groups for the Gaza government to stop the practice, regulations of child labor is lax. Pelham reported that “at least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials“.[4]

Benjamin Netanyahu used the IPS publication to document his claim that "Hamas puts children to work in terror tunnels, sending them to their death." The claim was widely used by numerous pro-Israeli media outlets.[19] In a response to Netanyahu, Institute for Palestine Studies recalled that the tunnels were regulated by but largely not owned or operated by Hamas, and were a "response to Israel’s imposition of a draconian blockade that drastically controls and at times has banned almost all goods entering the territory, from construction materials, and gasoline, down to such items as pasta." The response further stated that "Pelham never suggests, as the prime minister seemed to imply in his comments, that children were ever used to build tunnels for military purposes, least of all into Israel", although "Hamas, as the governing authority in Gaza, did not implement its own directives to prevent the use of child labor". The Institute admitted an error in the article: There had not least 160 children been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials, but rather 160 persons as of 2012. IPS noted that more than 541 were children and some 3084 wounded by the Israeli bombing in the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict that was ongoing at the time.[19]


Entry of a Gaza smuggling tunnel.

The tunnels are normally dug by individual contractors from basements of houses or an olive grove under the border at depths of up to 30 meters (100 feet),[20] and reaching up to 800 meters (2640 feet) in length. In many cases, the owners of the houses enter into a business arrangement with the tunnel builders. They may receive a portion of the profits from the smuggling or some other sort of financial compensation from those who contract the tunnel construction.[21] While many tunnels are of a generally high quality of engineering and construction – with some including electricity, ventilation, intercoms, and a rail system – they are still very dangerous and are prone to cave-ins.[22] The openings to many tunnels are found within buildings in or around Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah.[23]

Measures taken against smuggling tunnels[edit]

Measures taken by Israel[edit]

Israel has destroyed hundreds of homes along the Gaza–Egypt border to enlarge buffer zone, asserting that they were used to hide smugglers' tunnels.[24] The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) maintain that this was done in order to prevent smuggling tunnels, and that incursions into Rafah and the destruction of tunnels and/or shafts under homes was the most effective means to close the tunnels down. An IDF spokeswoman has stated that in destroying tunnels, the IDF exercises "the utmost care to pinpoint the tunnels and do as little damage as possible".[25]

Israel, Egypt, the United States, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries have pledged to stop or slow smuggling to Gaza by land and sea.[23]

Tunnel found near Egyptian border by Israeli forces

Although Israeli air strikes rendered over 100 tunnels inoperative during Operation Pillar of Defense, many of them were restored within a few weeks because the main damage was sustained at the openings, not in the middle sections.[23]

During the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, Israel launched a ground offensive into Gaza with the primary objective being to fully destroy the cross border tunnels.[26] In total 31 tunnels were destroyed during the weeks the IDF was in Gaza.[27]

On 11 August 2014 the IDF announced they had successfully tested a system that could be used to detect these tunnels.[28] This new system uses a combination of sensors and special transmitters to locate underground tunnels.[29] The IDF expects development to cost up to NIS 1.5 billion, and could be deployed within the year.[30]

Measures taken by Egypt[edit]

Some measures such as Egypt’s construction of an underground fence along its side of the Gaza-Egypt border have been taken. In late 2009 Egypt started construction of a subterranean barrier in an attempt to curb the use of smuggling tunnels. Nevertheless, anti smuggling capabilities remain limited and constrained.[23]

In 2010, the Egyptian Mubarak regime sprayed toxic gas into the tunnels, killing 4 Palestinians.[31]

In 2011, Egypt began sealing a series of smugglers’ tunnels between its border and the Gaza Strip.[32] The Egyptian army has increased its deployment along its border since 5 August 2012, when 16 Egyptian border police were killed in a terror attack. Since then there have been reports that the Egyptian army has been destroying smuggling tunnels by flooding them.[33]

In 2013, following the 2013 Egyptian coup d'état that ousted the pro-Hamas government, the Egyptian army has destroyed many of the tunnels, with the effect that "prices have soared, shelves are empty, utilities have suspended operations for lack of fuel and travel is restricted once again".[34]

In 2013, The Egyptian military started resorting to a pungent new tactic to shut down the smuggling tunnels connecting Sinai and Gaza: flooding them with sewage.[35]

Smuggling tunnels and the various methods different countries have used to address the types of threats tunnels pose to national security has been discussed in the literature.[36][37]

After General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi assumed leadership of Egypt in 2013, the Egyptian Army launched an aggressive campaign of destroying tunnels between Gaza and Egyptian territory. As of August 2014, the Egyptian Military destroyed 1659 smugglings tunnels.[38]

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed with the destruction of smuggling tunnels, arguing that they had produced 1,800 millionaires, and were used for smuggling weapons, drugs, cash and equipment for forging documents. Abbas had previously recommended the sealing or destruction of the tunnels by flooding them and then punishing the owners of the homes that contained entrances to the tunnels, including demolishing their homes.[39][40]

On 11 September 2015, the Egyptian army began to pump water from the Mediterranean Sea into the tunnels. A number of Palestinian factions condemned the flooding of the border with sea water, because it posed a serious threat to environment and ground water.[41] In February 2016, it was reported that the flooding was creating an environmental disaster and have a catastrophic effect on the basic livelihoods of millions of Palestinians.[42]

According to the Egyptian president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, flooding of the tunnels had been carried out in coordination with the Palestinian Authority.[40] On 6 February 2016, Israeli Minister Yuval Steinitz said that Sisi ordered the flooding of several Hamas tunnels to a certain extent due to Israel’s request. He affirmed that Egyptian–Israeli security cooperation was “better than ever”.[43]

Buffer zone[edit]

In October 2014, days after an attack in which 33 Egyptian soldiers were killed, Egypt announced it may create a buffer zone between Palestinian Rafah and Egyptian Rafah, where most tunnels are believed to be.[44][45] Initial width of the buffer zone was 500 meter but on November 18, 2014, Egypt said it would expand it to 1 km.[46] On December 29, 2014 buffer zone was extended again to 5 km.[47]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Egypt eases blockade at Gaza's Rafah border BBC News, 28 May 2011.
  2. ^ Isolation of Gaza Chokes Off Trade. Steven Erlanger. Herald Tribune, 19 September 2007.
  3. ^ Egypt bans Hamas activities in Egypt. Reuters. 4 March 2014
  4. ^ a b c Gaza's Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel's Siege. Nicolas Pelham, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 41, no. 4 (Summer 2012)
  5. ^ Yale Law School. The Avalon Project Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt – 26 March 1979.
  6. ^ a b c Sullivan, Denis Joseph; Jones, Kimberly A. (ed.) Global Security Watch – Egypt: A Reference Handbook, "The Rafah Crossing – The Border with Gaza", p.116-118. ABC-CLIO, 2008
  7. ^ Isabel Kershner. Abbas’s Premier Tells Israel to Reopen Gaza. New York Times. 14 December 2007.
  8. ^ Gaza: Chronic Shortages of Drugs and Medical Supplies. Doctors Without Borders, 16 November 2011
  9. ^ PCHR: Gaza leukemia patients without medicine for 11 months. Ma'an News Agency, 21 November 2013
  10. ^ Five years of blockade. OCHAoPt, June 2012
  11. ^ a b Ongoing updates: Rafah Crossing, tunnels, and the situation in Gaza. Gisha, 27 August 2013
  12. ^ a b Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, pp. 13-14. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 6 July 2015 ( TD/B/62/3). Source
  13. ^ Israel's Gaza Blockade Baffles Both Sides. CBS News, 28 May 2010.
  14. ^ Egypt 'destroys 1,370 Gaza smuggling tunnels,' says army. Ma'an News Agency, 13 March 2014
  15. ^ Ben-David, Calev. "Maze of Secret Gaza Tunnels Targeted by Israel Offensive". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  16. ^ Gaza's only power plant shuts down over fuel shortage, official says. Haaretz, 27 December 2013
  17. ^ In Gaza, sewage stains beaches and piles of garbage mount on streets. Reuters, 30 June 2014
  18. ^ Gaza Tunnels: Heavy Traffic in Ramadan. Taghrid Atallah, Occupied Palestine, 23 July 2012 (translated from Arabic Edition)
  19. ^ a b A response to Netanyahu and a Correction from the Journal of Palestine Studies. Institute for Palestine Studies, 21 August 2014
  20. ^ Ben-David, Calev. "Maze of Secret Gaza Tunnels Targeted by Israel Offensive". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  21. ^ Times Online: "In the tunnels of Gaza, smugglers risk death for weapons and profit"
  22. ^ Unusual Jobs Highlight Restricted Choices of Gaza Youth. BBC News, 11 December 2012.
  23. ^ a b c d  This article incorporates public domain material from the Congressional Research Service document "Jim Zanotti. Hamas: Background and Issues for Congress".
  24. ^ 'Philadelphi Road' travels deadly Gaza terrain Israel is knocking down nearby houses that the army says are used to hide smugglers' tunnels. By Michael Matza., 19 May 2004.
  25. ^ Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch.
  26. ^ "Tunnels Lead Right to the Heart of Israeli Fear". The New York Times. 29 July 2014. Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  27. ^ "'At least 160 children died digging tunnels for Hamas'". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  28. ^ "Israel tests system to detect Hamas tunnels". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  29. ^ "Israel Tests New Terror Tunnel Detection System". 17 July 2014. Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  30. ^
  31. ^ Four Killed, Nine Wounded, After Being Gassed In Tunnel By Egypt. IMEMC, 29 April 2010
  32. ^ "Egyptian military begins closing smuggling tunnels near Gaza". Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  33. ^ Egypt floods Gaza tunnels to cut Palestinian lifeline. Reuters, 13 February 2013.
  34. ^ Hamas and the peace process: Not at the table
  35. ^ "To Block Gaza Tunnels, Egypt Lets Sewage Flow". The New York Times. 21 February 2013. Retrieved 4 July 2016. 
  36. ^ Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S.(2013)."Terrorist Use of Smuggling Tunnels," International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, Volume 2, 210–226.
  37. ^ Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S.(2011). "Smuggling Tunnels: The Need for a Transnational Analysis," Inside Homeland Security Volume 9, Issue 1.
  38. ^ Egyptian army destroys 13 more Gaza tunnels Egyptian army destroys 13 more Gaza tunnels; Cairo has eliminated 1,639 tunnels that run into Sinai thus far By AFP 27 July 2014.
  39. ^ Abbas: Egypt Right to Create Buffer Zone on Gaza Border Archived 20 August 2015 at the Wayback Machine.. Jack Khoury, Haaretz, 1 December 2014 (premium).
    ″Abbas believed the destruction of the tunnels was the best solution. The Palestinian president said he had recommended previously the sealing or destruction of the tunnels by flooding them and then punishing the owners of the homes that contained entrances to the tunnels, including demolishing their homes.″
  40. ^ a b Sisi says Gaza tunnels flooded in coordination with PA. MEMO, 28 September 2015
  41. ^ Palestinian factions condemn Egypt flooding Gaza borders. MEMO, 21 September 2015
  42. ^ The situation on the Gaza-Sinai border is ‘deteriorating’, claims security official. MEMO, 9 February 2016
  43. ^ Security establishment furious with minister after making Egypt-Israel cooperation public. Yossi Melman. Jerusalem Post, 6 February 2016
  44. ^ "Egypt may relocate thousands of Bedouin to widen buffer zone near Gaza border". Haaretz. 26 October 2014. 
  45. ^ "Palestinian militants from Gaza behind Sinai attacks, Egyptian official says". Haaretz. Beshadi stressed that the "only solution" for putting an end to the attacks by alleged Palestinian militants was to establish a "safe zone" between the Gaza Strip and Sinai, by relocating residents in other areas. 
  46. ^ "Egypt to expand Gaza buffer zone to 1 km; 12 new tunnel openings found". Haaretz. 18 November 2014. the Egyptian army will widen the zone from 500 meters in order to improve national security, after Egyptian security forces uncovered tunnels that were 800 to 1,000 meters long going deep into Egyptian territory. 
  47. ^ "Gaza buffer zone to increase to 5km: North Sinai governor". Daily News Egypt. 29 December 2014. 

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