Into the Underworld; Investigation; Exclusive

Exclusive: Beneath the Israeli-Egyptian border is a secret world: a network of narrow tunnels, through which Palestinians smuggle weapons – and even wives – into the Gaza Strip. But these ‘snake holes’ also carry the risk of disaster and death. Marie Colvin enters the subterranean labyrinth.

By Marie Colvin
The Israeli-Egyptian Border, July 17, 2005 

Nadr Keshta was 18 and his attractive young neighbour had caught his eye. He started hanging about on street corners, trying to catch sight of her as she walked home from school in her blue-and-grey uniform. For weeks she ignored him. When she finally waved back to his wink, it was her signal that she returned his interest. Without ever exchanging a word, they considered themselves “engaged”. That was where their story, as told by his younger brother Mohamed, led into the subterranean world of the “tunnel people” of Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza Strip. He needed money now, to build a house for his bride and, truth be told, to show off a bit – buying a new gun was first on his list. For young men in Rafah, a gun is street cred; it’s cool, like having the latest pair of trainers.

Nadr was earning a pittance on his father’s farm. Gaza has been locked down by the Israeli army since the armed Palestinian intifada began in September 2000. There are no jobs for young men, because Gaza can no longer export the fruit and vegetables that were the staples of its economy – tomatoes that used to sell for $20 a crate are down to $3 in the local market. Only a few men have permission to enter Israel for work.

Nadr turned to the only paying job in Rafah: digging tunnels under the Israeli-Egyptian border. I had heard rumours of tunnels for years, but never really believed them, because there is nothing but white sand that runs through your fingers. How could you have a tunnel network in this flimsy sand? My scepticism was buttressed by knowledge of Israel’s defences: the army has erected an 8ft wall that plunges invisibly many more feet underground along the Rafah side of the Philadelphi road – a dirt stretch patrolled by armoured Israeli Jeeps that parallels the Egyptian border – to stop tunnellers. Then there are explosions every night in Rafah, set off arbitrarily by Israeli engineers in the hope that they might collapse an undiscovered tunnel.

But a chance conversation resulted in my living in Rafah for a week with the “tunnel people”. It was like discovering a lost tribe in a city I had been visiting for 15 years. I found an extraordinary, secret tunnel culture known only to a few Palestinians. The tunnel people told me they originally smuggled in contraband drugs, women, cigarettes (5 shekels in Egypt, 12 shekels in Gaza), and even the python that still slithers around in the Rafah zoo, and the ostrich that escaped during the May 2004 Israeli incursion, to the great glee of Rafah kids, who rode bareback on the big bird until the zookeepers recaptured him. Since the second intifada began five years ago, however, the tunnellers have mostly smuggled weapons.

The profits are huge. A Kalashnikov sells for $200 on the Egyptian side, but fetches $2,000 on the Gaza black market. A good night’s delivery is 1,200 Kalashnikovs – a profit of more than $2m. Bullets – 50 cents in Egypt, $8 wholesale in Gaza – are even more profitable. A standard one-night delivery returns a profit of $750,000. The tunnels are financed by wealthy families – locals call them the “snakeheads” – who run the tunnels as businesses. They rent the passage to anyone who pays $10,000 for one night’s use – a gun dealer, Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the militant Islamic fundamentalist groups, or a man who can’t get his wife legally into Gaza. Cash is the currency, not politics, patriotism or sentimentality.

They rent, build or buy a house, even an entire farm, just to disguise a tunnel’s “eye”, as they call the entrance. The gun dealers are their biggest clients. “We call them blood dealers,” said Abu Sibah, 36, the bearded head of a rogue Palestinian militia in Al-Bureij refugee camp north of Rafah, outside a car mechanics’ shop where he had stored his latest shipment of Kalashnikovs and a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). “But there is nothing to do about them. We depend on the tunnels for guns.” He was particularly proud of the shiny black Belgian revolver in his belt – at $3,000, a special order. It was to this world that Nadr Keshta turned for the money to marry.

His relatives were in the tunnel business and he heard a “big project” was about to start. He signed on with a group of eight young men, all relatives. In the tunnels there is a hierarchy: those not related to the patron work for $100 a day as diggers, while those who are relatives get a share of the profit in return for their labour, a much better deal. When the tunnel is finished they are entitled to a percentage on every load that passes through it.

Israel has made endless efforts to stop the tunnellers; apart from explosives, bulldozers have chopped away at Rafah’s unlovely blocks of concrete houses that used to sprawl right up to the border fence. But all that has done is make the digging longer and more arduous. Tunnels now have to extend about 880 yards to span the bulldozed divide. Keshta expected to make $20,000 as his share of the tunnel’s first load, and then a continuing profit as long as it remained undiscovered. In Gaza, that was enough to build a house and have some left over for his new gun and a wedding reception. But disaster struck.

At the start, the new project ran smoothly following well-rehearsed procedures. Keshta and his fellow diggers began excavating a shaft from a back bedroom of a three-storey house. The tunnel was financed by Hisham al-Sha’ir – the al-Sha’irs are known as Gaza’s premier tunnelling family.

An al-Sha’ir grandmother had died there and the house was empty. The tunnel “eye” was concealed by four marble floor tiles. They dug a narrow shaft, barely wider than their bodies, 40ft down through “hard sand” – red sand that is impacted and solid – until they reached a layer of soft sand. The tunnellers of Gaza are self-taught geologists; their grandfathers discovered that a “hard sand” stratum runs under Rafah to varying depths.

They dig through it until they hit the soft sand below – the layer of hard sand becomes their ceiling. They are hunted by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Keshta and the other young diggers lived day and night in the house, so that their comings and goings would not arouse suspicion. They hid the telltale sand in other rooms. But unbeknown to them, the explosives that the Israelis periodically set off had weakened the hard-sand ceiling. Three days of unexpected rain weakened it further, and the tunnel collapsed on Keshta and his two cousins, Nidal al-Sha’ir and Sufiyan al-Sha’ir.

The three were trapped. Other diggers heard Nadr yelling over the intercom that goes through every tunnel: “Help us, help us, help us to live.” The three entombed teenagers began chanting “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet,” the phrase that Muslims intone in times of crisis.

The tunnel financier raced to the scene and began digging with a bulldozer along the tunnel’s path, but nobody knew the boys’ location. Friends and relatives gathered at the intercom in the back bedroom.

“There is no air, it is too dark, we are feeling like we are in a grave,” Nadr’s brother, Mohamed, heard him shout. “I was sure then that they would die,” Mohamed said, remembering his sense of helplessness. For nine hours, the cousins were heard praying aloud and pleading for rescue. The Palestinians dug on their side of the Philadelphi wall and the Israelis began digging on theirs after a desperate relative broke the tunnel code of secrecy and drew the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) a map of the tunnel’s path.

Nadr Keshta’s illicit fiancee heard of the disaster, but she could not come even just to hear his voice: her parents would have been furious if they had known of her relationship with a boy they had not approved. She would have been considered to have dishonoured the family. Juliet, who doesn’t want her real name used, was despondent. She had no idea her Nadr had gone down the tunnels. “Why did he do this? I wanted him, not money!” she cried in secret. But she had to hide her distress from her family. After nine hours of solid digging, an Israeli bulldozer accidentally cut the intercom wire and there was silence on the line that connected the three cousins to the world above.

Keshta and his cousins had made the mistake of young men the world over: succumbing to the lure of the big score. But the price in Rafah’s tunnels is higher than elsewhere. However vast the sums to be made in the tunnel business, it is not easy money. Death stalks this subterranean world – the horrific slow death of suffocation below the surface. The day before I arrived in Rafah, a teenager had been electrocuted in a tunnel and his body dumped where he, but not the tunnel “eye”, would be found. Families who receive the bloated bodies of their tunnel dead take a little consolation from the fact that tunnellers who die digging are considered shaheed – martyrs to the Palestinian cause – even if they mostly die in the pursuit of profit. In Rafah, the culture of the martyr is as pervasive as guns.

Yousef and Ahmed Keshta, 24 and 31, run the most popular barber’s shop in Rafah, the Shaheed Salon – the Martyrs’ Salon. The walls are plastered with photographs and posters of late former customers. Instead of shampoos and conditioners, the shelves of mirrored cabinets are lined with keepsakes from the dead: a string of worry beads left by Mahmoud al-Sha’ir the day before he was killed; a toy gun from their youngest customer to die in a tunnel. Their most popular hairstyles are the side-buzzed marine cut – modelled on that of the American marines seen on the news, even though most young Gazans are vaguely anti-American – and the French cut, so called because it resembles a mushroom when done properly. I asked a bearded Martyrs’ Salon customer, who sat with a white bib in front of a mirror, if it was not disconcerting to be stared at from all sides by the dead. He looked at me as if I came from a different planet. “Of course not. I remember them all: most are relatives, neighbours, friends – it is my duty to remember them.” There are more realistic voices, but they don’t drown out the siren call of money.

Israeli tanks rolled into Rafah in May 2004 after five Israeli soldiers died when Palestinians fired an RPG at an armoured personnel carrier. IDF tanks and bulldozers destroyed another entire block of homes. Ibrahim Keshta knocked holes through his walls to get his family out. “It used to be a big neighbourhood here. Now there are only dogs,” he said as he brought a tray of glasses of sweet tea and sat cross-legged on the floor of his half-ruined house to talk. “You die alone here.”

Looking down through windows emptied of glass by tank shells, Ibrahim’s view is of a mound of rubble – all that remains of a small tin-roofed house custom-built to hide the “eye” of the tunnel where his younger brother Mohamed died. A baby fig tree grows above the barely visible sunken path of sand that is the only trace of the destroyed tunnel beneath.

Ibrahim blames a “snakehead” for luring his brother underground. “He told my brother, ‘Join my crew and you will have nice expensive guns, a nice house, you can marry,’” he says, waving his arms around with lingering outrage, shooing away his three small children, who return moments later to listen and giggle.

After hundreds of yards of digging and one day away from punching through in Egypt, on his first tunnel job, the roof collapsed above Mohamed and his boss. Both died.

In Ibrahim’s neighbourhood alone, locals reckon there are about 20 tunnels in various stages of destruction or excavation. Down the street from Ibrahim’s ruin is the rubble of a house destroyed because the owner had financed one of the most famous tunnels in Rafah: the one commissioned by Yasser Arafat, then president of the Palestinian Authority, to smuggle in 50 tonnes of weapons from Iran aboard the freighter Karine A, which the Israelis captured in the Red Sea. Arafat denied any connection, but the trace was clear: the PA had commissioned the $100m cargo of rockets, missiles, mortars and sniper rifles. When I went to the site of the destroyed house, a white baby donkey lay basking in the sand at the foot of all that was left: a mound of dirt and concrete slabs. After my visit, the PA found the “eye” of another tunnel dug to connect to the main one – right underneath where the baby donkey had been tethered by a rope invisible to the casual observer.

More terrifying than the spectre of sudden death is the psychological trauma of spending months underground in a space 2ft wide by 2ft 4in tall.

A 770-yard tunnel can take six months to finish. When tunnellers lowered me by rope down a shaft that began in a little girl’s bedroom with posters of cuddly animals on the walls, I was gripped by panicky claustrophobia. The so-called “safe” hard-sand walls trickled away on my head as I passed into the depths; the sand crumbled each time I scrabbled for footing on the way down; the walls closed in, and the bare bulbs did little to alleviate the darkness or the fear that the whole thing might cave in on top of me at any moment.

“To do this work, you have to throw your heart away,” says Ayed (not his real name), who at 28 is considered a veteran digger. So comfortable with his work has Ayed become that he sleeps in tunnels. He has a muscular, wiry body and spade-like callused fingers. He brews coffee up top, and takes a flask down with him and thinks nothing of staying underground for days. As I would learn, each tunneller has his own methods. Unlike the tunnel that I went down, where hard sand formed the walls of the shaft, Ayed’s entry shaft is lined with metal plates specially welded for the job. As boss, he checks the tunnel’s progress with a compass every 10-15 yards; after 20 yards he installs a bespoke engine that hauls back nine “boats” containing pails of sand. Two tunnellers work at the face, Ayed digging and the other loading the pails. Two work at the foot of the shaft unloading the buckets, then buzz when the buckets are empty, and the forward crew starts the engine to haul them back.

If the sand gets soft on the horizontal he is digging, Ayed either installs supports or just tunnels lower to make sure he has a hard-sand ceiling. He is nostalgic about the time he worked in a well-financed tunnel where the owner installed air conditioning.

At 55 yards, he brings in a vacuum cleaner and hooks it up to a hose to draw in air. It is gospel in Gaza that Israel has banned the import of vacuum cleaners. By the time the tunnel reaches 55 yards there are three systems operating: a specially engineered motor-and-pulley system to get the pails of sand to the mouth of the tunnel; an intercom on a separate wire to connect him to the top; and a third wire that brings in electricity to power the bare bulbs that line the tunnel.

Ayed can judge the distance by experience; nine buckets of sand equals one yard. A typical day is 10-11 hours of digging, 10-15 yards of progress.

Every tunnel is measured meticulously: 2ft wide, 2ft 4in high. Wider than that, and experience shows collapse is likely.

There is black humour, much as in any other dangerous profession. Ayed laughs as he recalls the time he put up a pipe to see where he was going, and it came up in the living room of a house and he could hear a mother yelling at her child. He traced the location and paid the family for their silence. As in gold-prospecting, all tunnellers dream of the big score.

“Even when we have no tunnel, we meet – and what do we talk about?” said Ayed. “We talk about houses we have spotted that might be good for a tunnel; if anyone has heard of a tunnel deal going down.”

Their hero is Salman al-Sha’ir, now 85, the grandfather of all the tunnellers. He was called in whenever a tunnel had a problem and could always solve it. Famously (at least in tunnel lore), he once single-handedly dug a tunnel to Egypt when his son was caught on the Egyptian side, and rescued him. Salman’ s tunnel career ended when Israeli commandos snatched him from his farm; he now languishes in an Israeli prison.

Ayed’s experience on the Egyptian side – punching out the other “eye” – gives an incredible insight into how this strange underworld connects to a larger network of international arms dealers. Over the years he has been working, he has seen the provenance and quality of weapons change. Guns used to come from Egypt and Yemen; now the great bulk come from Darfur in Sudan, where civil war is raging. The dealers have migrated there and sell weapons by the tonne to the Bedouin who live on the mountainous border and are subject to no law. The Sudan connection is well known in Gaza, but Israel’s military intelligence, usually among the best-informed in the world, still lists Egypt and Yemen as the main provenances for the guns used against them.

Ayed told an extraordinary tale of the time he was stranded in Egypt. As tunnel boss, he was responsible for the diggers, all relatives of the tunnel patron, so he could not leave them behind without risking a blood feud. When they punched through on the tunnel into the Egyptian side, the army had been tipped off and started firing. Ayed got everyone and the shipment down into the tunnel but was too late to escape himself. He fled with the Bedouin suppliers into the mountains, then watched them take delivery of tonnes of weapons from dealers in Darfur. “I stayed with the Bedouin for 12 days until I found a tunnel to go back to Rafah,” Ayed said.

“In the mountains, the Bedouin are heavily armed; they even have anti-aircraft weapons. The Egyptian army can’t go there.” Abu Sihab, of the rogue militia in Al-Bureij, says: “The good guns we are getting now are from Darfur. The bullets from Darfur are shit – I always check them and they are bad.”

There are exceptions, probably as common as the Las Vegas gambler who gives up after his big score. The only tunneller I met who had given up described tunnelling as addictive. “It takes a special kind of person,” he said. He would only talk to me in secret; we met in the middle of a field of 3ft-high corn and sat on the ground. Even then, he was nervous. He treated his 10-month digging as a high-risk investment; he got shares in return for labour and earned $45,000. Unlike any other tunneller, he never went back.

He now has a house and is looking for a wife. He is the exception.

Tunnellers such as Ayed live for the next tunnel; he says there are always shipments waiting with the Bedouin in Egypt; anyone who can get a tunnel across is assured of business.

Ayed has been buried three times, but never as disastrously as Keshta and his cousins. “Only my head was free,” he said. “It only took me two hours to dig myself out, and then I went back to digging.” Neither his wife nor his family knew he was working on a tunnel; he told them he was working in construction in Gaza City and that it was difficult to come back at night because of the Israeli checkpoints that cut Palestinian Gaza into three sectors. When he did go home, he showered first and walked a circuitous path back.

Nadr never got to marry his Juliet or buy his “cool” gun; the Israelis found him, still alive, in the collapsed tunnel. The photo of his miraculous rescue is on the wall of the Martyrs’ Salon, but he is now in an Israeli prison with a lengthy sentence to serve; his secret fiancee has vowed to wait, but their life is essentially over.

For Ayed, given the number of tunnels being dug, and the Israeli explosives, his experience may not be enough; the chances are the night will come when he won’t be showering and walking home ever again. Ayed and I discuss how many tunnellers have died, and he tells me he will leave the tunnel business for a steady job. But when I ask him what he dreams about, his eyes light up and he says: “I dream of building a tunnel all for myself. I’ll wait for this ‘hot’ time (pressure from Israel and the PA) to pass. Now I have my own connections on the Egyptian side.” I point out the odds are against him. Even after the Israelis withdraw from Gaza soon, the PA’s hunt will continue. He says with a big smile: “No one will stop the tunnels. I’ll teach my children.”

© The Sunday Times July 2005