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Portfolio: Tunneling to Survive

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From the Summer Issue "Change Matters"  

Photo Essay by Max Siegelbaum

Photos by Ahmed Deeb

Reporter Max Siegelbaum and photojournalist Ahmed Deeb follow 12-year-old Mohammed Alhwani, a Palestinian boy in Gaza, as he helps build the tunnels that smugglers have been transporting illicit materials and cargo through for over three decades. In 2006, after Hamas’s landslide victory in the Palestinian elections, the Israelis instituted a strict blockade on Gaza. These tunnels then became critical entry points for food, water, and contraband, and have since been expanded by a small but desperately determined army of workers, many like Mohammed, not even in their teens. 

Deep beneath the shifting sands of Gaza and Sinai, the tell-tale openings of the tunnels are being built faster than they can be uncovered and destroyed.

Mohammed, wrapped in his keffiyeh to keep the dust and sand from his mouth and eyes, prepares to join his 26-year-old brother Ammar Alhwani as the two head deep into the tunnels.

A pause for Mohammed to catch his breath after two hours of work, inside the tunnel he has helped dig.

Mohammed often is a member of the wheelbarrow brigade, emptying sand from the tunnel in an endless procession.

Digging in the near-darkness, punctuated only by scattered work lights, builders must haul each load of sand to the surface as the tunnel moves forward beneath the Egyptian frontier. 

The workers spend hours traversing and maintaining the tunnels, which are impressively built but nonetheless prone to collapse.

With limited supplies, the workers are forced to improvise, hauling sand and goods in makeshift containers.

Sand at times gives way to hard rock, but the tunneling must continue.

The end of another day in Gaza—school, tunneling, and then homeward bound.


GAZA—Mohammed Alhwani stands in the courtyard of his school, gazing casually beyond the view of the camera. He wears a baggy sweatshirt and a backpack slung over one shoulder. He looks careless, free, and very much his 12 years of age. Several hours later, Mohammed rests next to a jerry-rigged electricity panel, yards beneath the earth, with hard, weary eyes—buried in the claustrophobic heart of one of Gaza’s smuggling tunnels, an intricate network of underground passageways that illegally—under the laws of at least three nations—pass under international borders from Egypt into the Gaza territory. 

Mohammed is one of a small contingent of Palestinians and Egyptians who toil beneath the desert under the border of the two countries. Using only basic construction tools—buckets, shovels, pickaxes, and some light machinery—they excavate and reinforce the tunnels. These vital arteries link the underground economies of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza.

A longtime smuggling route, Gazans and Egyptians have been ferrying illicit goods across the border since the tunnels were first dug in the 1980s. Gaza exists in a geographic and bureaucratic limbo, beyond Israeli and Egyptian politics, instead revolving around people and goods entering and leaving the territory on quite a regular basis. One month, Egypt opens the borders for Gazans to pass freely back and forth. The next, it’s shut, air tight, with no one except essential personnel let through.

In the winter elections of 2006, Hamas took control of the Palestinian parliament, winning 74 of the 132 seats. Shortly thereafter, the group became Gaza’s primary governing body. Israel and Egypt locked their borders, and an economic blockade was placed on the territory. Suddenly, the smuggling escalated. The trickling stream of items, destined for the dark economy, surged into a steady supply of essential resources—from sacks of concrete and antibiotics to illegal painkillers, cigarettes, fast food, even people.

A sizable smuggling economy surfaced within the border communities on both sides of the wall. In El Arish, Egypt, garishly painted trucks line up for miles, waiting to deposit their goods with smugglers, who pass through trap doors hidden in the basements of apartment buildings and private homes, leading to the network of tunnels into Gaza. At the other end, in Gaza, deliverymen lie in wait to run the packages throughout the territory. Since they are essentially built by hand, the tunnels are susceptible to the shifting desert and collapse at times on those working inside, some as young as 10 or 12 years old. Still, the designs are quite sophisticated, with ventilation systems, electricity, and rudimentary support structures.

When Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed in the summer of 2013, the Sinai Peninsula erupted in violence. In an attempt to quell the flow of weapons from within Gaza to insurgent groups operating in the Sinai, the Egyptian military flooded the tunnels with sewage and used bulldozers and dynamite to collapse them. At the same time, Israel has seen the tunnels as a conduit for arms and explosives to Palestinian forces seeking to attack Israelis and break the blockade that has been strangling Gaza.

Both ends of the tunnels in North Sinai and Gaza have a long history of economic depression. The people who live on either side have little opportunity for legal work and are trapped between the armed extremist groups that operate around them and the inevitable pushback from larger surrounding military forces. Young people like Mohammed are pushed into the dark economy simply to survive. They live day-to-day, working tirelessly underground for little reward, their livelihoods hostage to the region’s teetering security and bitterly contested politics.


The images featured in "Change Matters" are part of a larger series  by Ahmed Deeb; the following photos complete his "Tunneling in Gaza" portfolio.    









Ahmed Deeb is a Palestinian photographer based in Istanbul, Turkey.

Max Siegelbaum is a journalist and producer based in Cairo, and a member of the Zeer News collective.




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