Even before the war between Hamas and Israel, the network of tunnels under Gaza have been at the centre of international attention.
Coverage of their use by the Palestinian resistance movement has concentrated on missile launches into Israel. But they are used for much more. At times, they have been a lifeline for the people of Gaza.
Now, they are much more extensive. The Israeli media has referred to the tunnels as “Lower Gaza” or simply “Metro” due to the reach of the network. It spans thousands of kilometres at depths that can exceed 25 meters.
The humanitarian importance of the tunnels became apparent during the Israeli blockade imposed in 2007. It closed six surface crossings into Gaza, subjecting Palestinians to severe suffering.
They were deprived of food, water and other essentials, including fuel, automotive parts, building materials, wood and vital consumer goods like cleaning products.
With supplies of these essentials cut off, Palestinians dug over a thousand tunnels under the southern border with Egypt – many running under houses in the divided town of Rafah – to get around the blockade and ease the dire living conditions.
Palestinians dug over a thousand tunnels under the southern border with Egypt – many running under houses in the divided town of Rafah – to get around the Israeli blockade and ease the dire living conditions.
Rafah was split in two by the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979, along the Salah al-Din axis, one side of which is Palestinian and the other Egyptian.
After Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the Salah al-Din axis came under the control of the Palestinian Authority until 2007, when Hamas seized power. That was when both Egypt and Israel closed their borders with Gaza.
Essentials from underground
One of the people who dug the tunnels into Egypt spoke to Al Majalla about the work. Asking to remain anonymous, he said: "We used to begin the digging process within border houses located in Rafah after agreeing on the tunnel destinations on the opposite side of the border, in collaboration with homeowners who received a portion of the smuggled goods."
During this period, these tunnels were rudimentary in design, with diameters barely exceeding one metre and depths reaching 15 metres. Some tunnels were no more than 100 metres long, serving as conduits for essential food items and fuel to enter Gaza.
The tunnels evolved over time, and surged in numbers. Smuggling operations broadened to cover a broader range of essentials, one of the tunnel workers said. This meant they could bring in tyres, building materials, wood, and even cars.
These goods were accessible at significantly reduced prices compared to Israeli products imported through Israeli crossings.
Residents backed the digging, and support for it grew.
Shukri Karaja, a 41-year-old resident of central Gaza, says that the tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt played a crucial role in enabling him to get hold of basic necessities for his children – particularly milk for his infant son – in those challenging years. The tunnels helped avert famine and the prospect of economic and social collapse faced by Gazans during that blockade.
Alongside providing the necessities for life, the tunnels revitalised local markets, allowing numerous workers and entrepreneurs to resurrect their businesses.
Salem Subh – a 56-year-old man who formerly owned a supermarket selling essential groceries – said: "With the tightening blockade, our shelves were bare—no flour, no sugar, no canned goods, not even baby milk. I had no choice but to close my shop; my business ground to a halt, and my sole source of income vanished."
"However, thanks to the tunnels and the smuggling of goods, I was able to resume my work and provide for my family once more."
With the tightening blockade, our shelves were bare—no flour, no sugar, no canned goods, not even baby milk. I had no choice but to close my shop. However, thanks to the tunnels and the smuggling of goods, I could resume work.
Salem Subh, Gaza resident
This revival also extended to the construction sector. Hundreds, if not thousands, of workers could return to their jobs. Although the pace of economic activity was lower, it was better than the alternative: complete unemployment and loss of income during the blockade.
It was particularly significant for labourers on daily wages, some of the people most immediately vulnerable to economic turbulence. Many people turned to the tunnels for an alternative living during the blockade as the best way around the closure of the Rafah crossing at ground level.
People also crossed back into Gaza via underground means, to get back home to friends and family.
Mohsen Ajur, now 36, was in the final year of medical school in Egypt during the blockade. Following his graduation he was stranded for several months before eventually getting in via the tunnels. When the situation eased, he went out again and returned via the official route, to get his passport stamped.
Flooding the tunnels
The Rafah cross-border tunnels reached about 12 kilometres and helped break the Israeli blockade until mid-2013.
Egypt ended up flooding the Rafah tunnels and demolishing some of the houses under which they ran, establishing a 1,500-metre buffer zone. This occurred when the country's relations with Hamas improved, leading to better conditions for individuals seeking to cross overground at Rafah.
Then, the commercial crossing, known as the Salah al-Din Commercial Gateway, was opened to goods traffic from Egypt.
The destruction of the Rafah tunnels boosted activity at the overground crossing. But some covert tunnels remained – and they were suspected of being used to smuggle weapons – rather than goods.
Hamas and other groups concentrated on digging tunnels elsewhere in Gaza — some 30 metres deep. In 2021, Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas, disclosed the existence of 310 miles of tunnels.
Some covert tunnels remained after Egypt destroyed many tunnels in Rafah. These tunnels were suspected of being used to smuggle weapons – rather than goods.
The Lower Gaza tunnel network is also now much more advanced. Many are fortified by concrete. Some are large enough to be used by motorbikes, a concern frequently raised by the Israeli army, especially after the discovery of numerous tunnels opening out in Israel, the other side of the separation wall, offering the Hamas militants a strategic advantage during ground campaigns against them.
The leader of Al-Qassam, under the alias "Abu Obeida", recently said the group was prepared for ground battles. Several videos were released showing fighters using the tunnels to target military vehicles and Israeli soldiers after the incursions into Gaza began.
Meanwhile, Israeli soldiers have expressed their apprehension at the impact of the tunnels and the implications for the urban warfare involved.
The overwhelming majority of Gaza's 2.3 million population backs Hamas's military action against the Israeli army, viewing it at as resistance to Israeli occupation and oppression.
Ahmed Khalid, a 42-year-old resident who was displaced from the eastern part of Gaza City to the southern region, said: "After years of displacement, occupation, killing, and destruction, it is our right as Palestinians to resist the occupation. The resistance has the entitlement to dig the ground, fortify its position, and prepare itself for facing the army."
After years of displacement, occupation, killing, and destruction, it is our right as Palestinians to resist the occupation. The resistance has the entitlement to dig the ground, fortify its position, and prepare itself for facing the army.
Ahmed Khalid, Gaza resident
Many residents share that opinion. But most opt to remain anonymous. Nonetheless, there is widespread support for tunnel digging, whether it is to break the blockade, confront and resist the Israeli army, or even attack it within the territories occupied in 1948.
However, Israel pushes the narrative that Hamas doesn't care about civilians since it built its tunnel network under cities where civilians live. It views targeting homes and hospitals as justified to eliminate Hamas.
Now, what happens below ground will largely determine the fate of those above ground.