Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tunnels once connected Egypt and Gaza. Here's what they looked like 10 years ago


The tunnels in Gaza bring to mind - for many - secret, dangerous passageways used by Hamas militants to mount their deadly attacks. It might be hard to imagine now, but long before today's Hamas, tunnels were a feature of daily life for Gazans. Our next guest is familiar with that time. She is a Palestinian American scholar and writer who publishes under a pen name, Bint al-Sirhid. We are using her pen name here because she has safety concerns for herself and her family due to the ongoing war in Gaza.

Al-Sirhid traveled through the tunnels along the Egyptian-Gazan border 10 years ago, when they were used for everything from family get-togethers to fast-food deliveries. The tunnels she knew were destroyed on the Egyptian side. She wrote about her experience in the tunnels and her views in a book called "Open Gaza: Architectures Of Hope."

BINT AL-SIRHID: When we tried to go - basically, it was my mother and I, and we wanted to go visit our family in Gaza in 2013. And even though things were a little uncertain at that time - this was right after Morsi. He was in power in Egypt, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and he had just been removed by a coup. And so things were a little uncertain, like what the conditions were. And she and I decided, hey, let's just take a chance. Let's go try to see our family.

And we basically arrived in Cairo and took a taxi across the Suez Canal and up - basically, it was called the coastal road of North Sinai. So there was a lot of Egyptian military presence and control over who goes in and out. We had a very long wait in order to take a ferry. There were several checkpoints along the way. So we took the taxi all the way to the Rafah border crossing. And there the Egyptian authorities did not allow us to cross, because my mother and I do not have what's called a hawia. A hawia is an ID system that was imposed by the Israeli occupation after they took power in 1967.

MARTIN: So then what happened?

AL-SIRHID: So we were turned back because we don't have a hawia. And we waited in a town nearby called Al-Arish, which is a beach town on the Mediterranean, and contacted our relatives in there. And they told us that there will be someone coming to pick us up. And sure enough, someone came and picked us up and brought us to an opening in the ground, and from there we just walked on in.

MARTIN: So did they drive through the tunnel? They walked, or if they guided you through it, or...

AL-SIRHID: In this case, it was walking. And we walked quite a bit until we entered sort of a large, more cavernous space. And a tuktuk came up - like a motorcycle-drawn carriage. And our cousins introduced themselves to us and drove us out.

MARTIN: What's the analogy that people who haven't had your experience might understand?

AL-SIRHID: I've been through four tunnels in total. Each one was different. The first one I went through, I would say, was the most, quote-unquote, "developed and refined." It was large enough to walk upright. Some areas were reinforced. There was lighting. The air in there is much cooler than above ground. It was quite well-made, you know. I mean, there were tunnels that I heard about but didn't see that were called VIP tunnels - tunnels big enough to drive cars through.

MARTIN: Is there something about Gaza that makes it particularly suitable to tunnels?

AL-SIRHID: You know, I've been asked the question why there's no tunnels like this in the West Bank, but there are in Gaza. The West Bank is mountainous. And so to make a tunnel in a clandestine way, you would need to use - well, you can't, because you would need to use explosives. Whereas in Gaza, there's quite a bit of clay in the area, in terms of the geology.

My father's family actually comes from a family that has done pottery for many, many generations. And so pottery is a big part of the artisanal creations in Gaza. And so people are pretty familiar with the terrain because they've been digging for clay for so many years. And so even though Gaza is coastal and has, you know, quite a bit of sand, people there just know where one can reach the clay layer.

MARTIN: Why did Egypt decide to destroy these tunnels?

AL-SIRHID: So they said they were destroying them for the sake of fighting terrorism. And in their discourse, they conflated the tunnels, they conflated Palestinians, they conflated Hamas, and they conflated ISIS. Now it's well-known, especially in the region, that Hamas was not at all affiliated with ISIS and actually stopped their emergence in the Gaza Strip. But Egypt used this as a pretext in order to contain the tunnels.

And the way that they contained them - of course, yes, they did try to flood them with seawater, as Israel is doing now. That failed. They tried, you know, many measures. Israel also - when it was indirect occupation in Gaza, they also tried by raising homes along the border in Rafah. They tried a violent military campaign to eradicate the tunnels and failed. In the end, they removed the tunnels by removing the people themselves, which is obviously what Israel is trying to do now in Gaza.

MARTIN: You can't deny at some point that some of these tunnels, at least some of these, were militarized. Or did Hamas just create their own pathways?

AL-SIRHID: These tunnels became what many called the lungs through which Gaza breathed. And many things were not allowed in. People were separated from their families. They started digging to each other. One story says that actually a dog smelled his owner on the other side of the border, and dug under the newly constructed border to reach him. Once Hamas came into power and the Israeli siege tightened even more, then the tunnels proliferated. And, you know, Hamas was the governing body or is the governing body at the time. And so they created a ministry in order to manage the tunnels.

MARTIN: There's a report that the military was using artificial intelligence to try to map these tunnels. Do you have any sense of how that would work?

AL-SIRHID: I mean, I know that they're using AI to make their bombing maps. That's what I read about. I am skeptical of any claim of technology being developed to find tunnels. Because, listen, tunnels have been everywhere. There's tunnels at the U.S.-Mexico border. There's no technology to detect them. There's tunnels at the DMZ between North and South Korea. Tunnels were used in the Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam during the American war.

I've had a Google alert for over 10 years for any time tunnels come in the news, and every couple of months or so, a new city discovers tunnels underneath them. So all this to say that tunnels are literally underground and secretive. Anybody who claims to have any accurate information about the current tunnel system will be not telling you the truth. I don't know where they are. Ordinary Gazans don't know where they are. So the tunnels that are being used now as combat tunnels are deeply, deeply secretive.

MARTIN: That was the Palestinian American scholar and writer who publishes under the pen name Bint al-Sirhid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.