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 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty of 1979,[1] the town of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, was split by this Corridor. One half of the town belongs to Egypt, and the other half is located in the southern part of Gaza. 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.[2][3]

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.[2]

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.[4]


Rafah, a city split between Gaza Strip and Egypt, is where the tunnels are located.[citation needed][clarification needed] Tunneling is said to have begun in the early 1980s when the border was reestablished after Israel withdrew from Sinai. Initially, the tunnels were used for moving consumer goods and drugs. During the First Intifada (December 1987 to 1993), they became conduits for weapons and militants.[5]

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.[5]

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.[6] So Karni and Rafah checkpoints were closed again, resulting in "severe personal and economic hardship for Gaza's 1,4 million population", according to UNOCHA. Thousands of travelers have been stranded on both sides of the border.[5]

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.[7][8] Import restrictions, including of basic building materials, have led to the proliferation of tunnels under the border with Egypt.[9][10] 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 are normally dug by individual contractors from basements of houses or an olive grove under the border at depths of up to 100 feet (30 meters),[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] The openings to many tunnels are found within buildings in or around Gaza's southernmost city of Rafah.[14]


The tunnels are used to smuggle a wide range of goods, including livestock, zoo animals, food, medicines, clothes, car parts, building supplies, weapons and luxury items in general.[15] Some, more secret, tunnels are said to be used by militant groups to bring in arms and money.[16]

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 are some of the main goods smuggled through the tunnels.[10][17]


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.[18]

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.[19]

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[20]

Use of child labor[edit]

According to an article by Nicolas Pelham in the 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 reports that “at least 160 children have been killed in the tunnels, according to Hamas officials;” most of the worker deaths in 2009 occurred in tunnels that collapsed.[21]

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.[22][23] The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) maintain that this was done in order to prevent smuggling tunnels and other threats (i.e. from snipers) to its soldiers who are patrolling the border. For example, following a rocket attack that apparently came from a row of buildings in Rafah and killed five Israeli soldiers, Israel demolished those buildings.[22] 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".[24]

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.[14]

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.[14]

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.[25] In total 31 tunnels were destroyed during the weeks the IDF was in Gaza.[26]

On 11 August 2014 the IDF announced they had successfully tested a system that could be used to detect these tunnels.[27] This new system uses a combination of sensors and special transmitters to locate underground tunnels.[28] The IDF expects development to cost up to NIS 1.5 billion, and could be deployed within the year.[29]

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.[14]

In 2010, the Egyptian Mubarak regime sprayed toxic gas into the tunnels, killing 4 Palestinians.[30]

In 2011, Egypt began sealing a series of smugglers’ tunnels between its border and the Gaza Strip.[31] 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.[32]

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".[33]

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.[34]

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.[35][36]

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.[37]

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.[38][39] Initial width of the buffer zone was 500 meter but on November 18, 2014, Egypt said it would expand it to 1 km.[40] On December 29, 2014 buffer zone was extended again to 5 km.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Yale Law School. The Avalon Project Peace Treaty between Israel and Egypt – 26 March 1979.
  2. ^ a b Egypt eases blockade at Gaza's Rafah border BBC News, 28 May 2011.
  3. ^ Isolation of Gaza Chokes Off Trade. Steven Erlanger. Herald Tribune, 19 September 2007.
  4. ^ Egypt bans Hamas activities in Egypt. Reuters. 4 March 2014
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Dion Nissenbaum. "Olmert aide supports free Gaza". McClatchy Newspapers. 8 December 2008.
  7. ^ Gaza: Chronic Shortages of Drugs and Medical Supplies. Doctors Without Borders, 16 November 2011
  8. ^ PCHR: Gaza leukemia patients without medicine for 11 months. Ma'an News Agency, 21 November 2013
  9. ^ Five years of blockade. OCHAoPt, June 2012
  10. ^ a b Ongoing updates: Rafah Crossing, tunnels, and the situation in Gaza. Gisha, 27 August 2013
  11. ^ Maze of Secret Gaza Tunnels Targeted by Israel Offensive
  12. ^ Times Online: "In the tunnels of Gaza, smugglers risk death for weapons and profit"
  13. ^ Unusual Jobs Highlight Restricted Choices of Gaza Youth. BBC News, 11 December 2012.
  14. ^ a b c d  This article incorporates public domain material from the Congressional Research Service document "Jim Zanotti. Hamas: Background and Issues for Congress".
  15. ^ Israel's Gaza Blockade Baffles Both Sides. CBS News, 28 May 2010.
  16. ^ Egypt 'destroys 1,370 Gaza smuggling tunnels,' says army. Ma'an News Agency, 13 March 2014
  17. ^ Maze of Secret Gaza Tunnels Targeted by Israel Offensive
  18. ^ Gaza's only power plant shuts down over fuel shortage, official says. Haaretz, 27 December 2013
  19. ^ In Gaza, sewage stains beaches and piles of garbage mount on streets. Reuters, 30 June 2014
  20. ^ Gaza Tunnels: Heavy Traffic in Ramadan. Taghrid Atallah, Occupied Palestine, 23 July 2012 (translated from Arabic Edition)
  21. ^ [1]"Gaza's Tunnel Phenomenon: The Unintended Dynamics of Israel's Siege", Nicolas Pelham, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol 41, no. 4 (Summer 2012), p. 11, 23, 30.
  22. ^ a b Israel's top court approves razing Palestinian homes, Znet
  23. ^ '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.
  24. ^ Razing Rafah: Mass Home Demolitions in the Gaza Strip, Human Rights Watch.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ Four Killed, Nine Wounded, After Being Gassed In Tunnel By Egypt. IMEMC, 29 April 2010
  31. ^ Egyptian military begins closing smuggling tunnels near Gaza
  32. ^ Egypt floods Gaza tunnels to cut Palestinian lifeline. Reuters, 13 February 2013.
  33. ^ Hamas and the peace process: Not at the table
  34. ^ To Block Gaza Tunnels, Egypt Lets Sewage Flow
  35. ^ Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S.(2013)."Terrorist Use of Smuggling Tunnels," International Journal of Criminology and Sociology, Volume 2, 210–226.
  36. ^ Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S.(2011). "Smuggling Tunnels: The Need for a Transnational Analysis," Inside Homeland Security Volume 9, Issue 1.
  37. ^ 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.
  38. ^ "Egypt may relocate thousands of Bedouin to widen buffer zone near Gaza border". Haaretz. 26 October 2014. 
  39. ^ "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. 
  40. ^ "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. 
  41. ^ "Gaza buffer zone to increase to 5km: North Sinai governor". Daily News Egypt. 29 December 2014. 

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