Eight Palestinian laborers were rescued from a commercial tunnel connecting Egyptian Rafah with the Gaza Strip late on Tuesday evening, after the Egyptian Armed Forces attempted to flood the tunnel.
An eyewitness involved in the effort to rescue the Palestinian laborers told Mada Masr, speaking on condition of anonymity, that “the rescue operation took nearly an hour. They were able to get out with the help of civil society members and the efforts of those present.”
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday evening news of the flooding of the tunnel by Egyptian military forces, a policy that Egypt has implemented since 2012 to target tunnels running between Egyptian Rafah and the Gaza Strip.
The tunnel flooded on Tuesday night was used to transport cigarettes between the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza, according to one of the rescued laborers.
“As we were working, we heard the sound of the pumps. We left everything and ran back,” the laborer told Mada Masr.
“Running fast in a tunnel is impossible, because the height of the tunnel necessitates you to kneel, then run. Electricity goes out as soon as the water is pumped and you run with the fear of an electric current,” the laborer said. The young man added that, by the time the laborers were clearing the final part of the tunnel, water had covered the lower halves of their bodies. They were pulled out by rescue teams.
According to a source close to the family, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, the eight laborers, who are all from the Shaer family and between 18 and 30 years old, were unharmed in the incident.
Armed Forces spokesperson Tamer al-Rifai issued the 25th communiqué of Operation Sinai 2018 on Tuesday, in which he said that the military had successfully destroyed a number of tunnels in Egyptian Rafah “over the past few days,” in addition to a series of other military and security endeavors in North Sinai.
Egypt’s policy of destroying tunnels began under former President Mohamed Morsi, in response to a militant attack on an Egyptian military checkpoint near Rafah in August 2012, in which 15 soldiers were killed. By 2015, two years after the Egyptian military ousted Morsi and assumed power, there were only 20 tunnels out of 250 left in operation, with the Egyptian Armed Forces resorting to flooding tunnels with seawater, a tactic which threatened to destroy the surrounding area.
The tunnel economy, which consisted of approximately 1,532 tunnels running beneath the 12-km border at its peak, thrived between 2007 and 2013, and serves as a lifeline to thousands of families living in the blockaded Gaza Strip. Gaza relies on the goods that came through them, including fuel, weapons, foodstuffs, medicine, clothes, appliances and construction materials, like steel and cement — which are prohibited by occupying Israeli forces.
In 2014, the World Bank estimated that the volume of trade through tunnels surpassed that of official channels.
The remaining tunnels in operation have also been subject to targeted attacks by both Israeli and Egyptian military forces.
In February of last year, there were several incidents where the Armed forces destroyed commercial tunnels between Egyptian Rafah and Gaza, killing a number of Palestinians. On February 13, 22-year-old Momin Abu Hamed was killed after the Armed Forces destroyed one of the tunnels. Palestinian rescue teams could not retrieve his body from the debris during rescue efforts. Later that month, three Palestinians were killed and five others were injured following a similar tunnel demolition attempt by the Egyptian military.
In November 2016, four men were killed while working in a tunnel linking Rafah to Gaza, after the Egyptian Armed Forces pumped water into the tunnel, leading to the entrapment and injury of 20 laborers who were inside. Rescue operations succeeded in getting the majority of people out the tunnel, but four people drowned in the incident.
Following these incidents, Hamas accused Egyptian authorities of killing Palestinians using poisonous gas while destroying these commercial tunnels in February 2017, according to the Israeli Haaretz newspaper.
Gaza officials have previously posed to Egyptian and Israeli authorities that opening the border would eliminate the need for smuggling tunnels, which currently function as lifelines to Gaza’s 1.9 million inhabitants. They are used to smuggle essential consumer goods and materials for reconstruction, in addition to weaponry, into the Gaza Strip.
The Rafah Border Crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been periodically opened since 2007, usually only for a few days at a time. During Ramadan this year, however, Egypt opened the crossing for almost one month. Ramzy Abul Qumsan, a public relations officer at the Palestinian General Agency for Crossings and Borders (GACB), previously estimated that during these brief openings, approximately 1,000 people are granted passage out of Gaza.
Palestinian news outlets have reported that between 160 and 400 Palestinians have died while digging or using the tunnels since the blockade on Gaza began in 2007.