In a Rafah English class full of rambunctious young boys, I met a scruffy 12-year-old who carries tiles, chips, soda and other commodities through the smuggling tunnels on most afternoons. (see picture) The boy said he was "a little scared" when he started last year but now he’s “used to it.” He boasted of his $20 per day salary and of the cigarettes he smoked with the Egyptians. He performed a song for the class that tunnel workers apparently sing as they exit in safety at the end of the day. The boy’s family “used to be poor” but “now they are middle class” because of their children’s work in the tunnels. The boy’s uncle was killed when a tunnel collapsed, and he knows of others who have been “martyred” when Israel bombed the tunnels.
Throughout my three days in Rafah, I’ve recalled a line in Rachel Corrie’s journals that she “[couldn’t] believe there are children here.” She was writing in the winter of 2003, when Rafah's children had already endured years of ongoing killings, sniper fire, and home demolitions. This was before Israel’s 2005 "Operation Rainbow" in Rafah and before last year's Gaza War, which claimed the lives of 13 Israelis and 1400 Palestinians, including more than 300 children. Rachel was also writing at a time when tunnels were hidden inside homes and used mainly for weapons smuggling--presumably before smugglers began to widely recruit children, whose nimble bodies could more easily crawl through the narrow passages.
The tunnel industry is now almost completely out in the open and children are sometimes recruited without permission from their parents. New tunnels are under construction as more and more desperate people risk their lives to get in on the profits. White tents covering the tunnel entrances are widely visible to everyone. It’s easy for journalists to interview tunnel owners or take photographs inside the tunnels (see picture). Some smugglers undoubtedly bring deadly weapons (explosives, guns, supplies for unguided Qassam rockets fired into Israel), but the majority bring food and commodities banned under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations has called the tunnels “an economic lifeline.”
Since the child labor tragedy has already been widely reported, I’m attempting to come at the tunnel story from two different angles. For one article, I’ve interviewed women who crawled through the tunnels to seek medical treatment in Egyptian hospitals, to marry, or to go on the Islamic pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia; none of these women were willing to give their full names, fearing trouble with the Egyptian police. I’m also planning on covering an April 15 silent demonstration organized by Gazans against child labor in the tunnels; if possible, I’ll interview Hamas authorities about why they have not stepped in to stop child labor in the tunnels. Many in the tunnel industry admit that it’s wrong to employ children, but argue that the Israeli blockade has forced this tragic situation upon them.