In July, Israel will start a project to build a wall deep underground along its 51-kilometre border in a bid to stop the digging of underground tunnels in Gaza. If it begins, the two-year-long project will be an addition to Egypt’s crackdown on the tunnels that connect Gaza to the outside world.
Ihab al Ghussein, spokesperson for the Palestinian group Hamas, told TRT World that they “understand Cairo’s security concerns in the Sinai region” – the area adjacent to Gaza – but they have no other options than to use the network of underground tunnels. Access to Gaza by land, sea and air is severely restricted by its neighbours, Israel and Egypt.
The tunnels run between Gaza and Egypt and are needed for survival until “regular access” to the territory is ensured.
What are the tunnels – and how are they used?
In 2007, Israel began to impose a blockade that prevented every kind of access to the territory from the air, land, and sea, in response to the election of Hamas. Egypt then closed it’s border in 2013, following claims that Hamas had supported militants in Sinai.
Gaza’s roughly two million inhabitants then became dependent on cross-border underground tunnels between the Gaza strip and Egypt to import basic commodities, including food, fuel, and medicine.
According to Hamas, there are two kinds of tunnels. Some tunnels are “used by normal people” to cross from Gaza to Egypt.
“The border is not open. There are no goods coming into Gaza. People have a right to bring food and goods into Gaza,” said Ghussein.
“These are human beings and we are already calling for borders to be open so that they can have easy access to basic necessities,” he said.
Ghussein said the second kind of tunnels were “used to support the resistance” – or to protect Palestinians from air strikes.
Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent the flow of weaponry into Gaza.
What’s Hamas’ defence?
Hamas says the tunnels are defensive rather than offensive – and they ensure that the Palestinians are able to respond if Israel were to attack Gaza again.
“It's not a fight against Jews, this is a fight against the occupiers. This is a key point. We don't hate Jews. We just want our land back,” Ghussein said.
“We don’t like the tunnels, but this is the only way to survive. “We don't have anything to protect ourselves except these tunnels. We will continue to protect ourselves – this is our right.”
Are the tunnels used for terrorism?
"Hamas digs terror tunnels and has launched thousands upon thousands of missiles at Israeli civilians," David Keyes, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said.
But Hamas says that they’d rather not use the tunnels.
“When did we use these tunnels to defend ourselves? The only time was when the Israeli army came to Gaza and wanted to kill Palestinians in 2014,” Ghussein responded to the Israeli claims.
“Are we going to wait in our homes if they attack us? No – we’ll use these tunnels,” he said.
He stressed that Hamas would not start a war against Israel “even though it wants the Palestinian land back occupied by settlers,” but he made it clear that Hamas would respond if Israel launched attacks.
Ghussein said on Tuesday he believes that “Egyptians care about the Palestinians, but implementing this concern" would mean opening the Rafah border.
“We are calling for regular opening for the Rafah border. In this case, we would shut the tunnels,” he said. “This is the ideal.”