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Tunnels Under Gaza

When the grid proves unreliable, people take matters into their own hands.

2 min read
Tunnels Under Gaza

Photo credit: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

In this month's issue of IEEE Spectrum, I describe Gaza's jury-rigged power grid, and the challenges involved in providing electricity in a territory essentially cut off from the world. But ultimately, when the grid proves unreliable, people take matters into their own hands.

Just as war and the economic blockade have forced those managing the electricity grid to cope with the seemingly impossible task of providing steady power, ordinary Gazans have had to learn to improvise when possible. When electricity faltered during the war, residents exchanged tips on creative workarounds. A favorite is harvesting the low-level current that runs through the telephone lines to recharge cellphones.

But residents also rely on consumer goods—candles, batteries and generators—smuggled through the tunnels that connect southern Gaza to Egypt. Driving into a bombed-out section of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, I got a chance to see what, in the absence of a properly working grid, has by default become this option of last resort.

Because smuggling, in large part, relies on the other side turning a blind eye to the problem, smuggling anything through Israel would be impossible, and the consumer-goods tunnels all connect to Egypt. A large number of the tunnels had originated in houses (tunnels are typically owned by families), now smashed to rubble, but many tunnels are already open again, covered only in some cases by an impromptu shed to shield them from Israeli aircraft and drones that might spot them from above. We stopped to go down into the shafts of two tunnels—one for fuel and one for cement. (Tunnels are often designated for specific cargo. For instance, bigger tunnels are reserved for cement and other goods and are reinforced with wood; fuel tunnels can in some cases be smaller.) The tunnel owner asked that we photograph quickly; if Hamas security caught us, they would demand money.

During the 2008–2009 war, Israel bombed the tunnels, collapsing many of them, but a large number of the underground passageways remain, and new ones are constantly being dug. Smuggling operations quickly resumed.

From the Palestinian perspective, the tunnels act as a slow-release pressure valve, allowing just enough goods into the territory to prevent a catastrophe, but not enough to allow the economy to function normally. While Israel points to the illegal tunnels as another sign of Gazan—and particularly Hamas—dysfunction, Hamas naturally blames Israel. “If [the borders] are open, there are no tunnels,” Fawzy Barhoom, Hamas’s spokesman, says in an interview in his Gaza office.

In the meantime, the tunnels don’t help the power plant, says Rafiq Maliha, a plant manager, with a wry laugh. The idea of a sophisticated power plant using contraband fuel or parts is just unrealistic. “We are talking about a power plant,” he said. “We can’t smuggle [parts] through the tunnels.”

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