Return to Gaza: Inside the Smuggling Tunnels

E-mail Mike
• Gaza Smuggling Tunnels Photoessay

I looked at my watch. It was May 13, 8:42 a.m. It was a little bit ironic that it was Mother’s Day, because my mother hates when I do stuff like this.

I’ve passed through the Erez crossing back into the Gaza for the first time in almost a year. I remember very well the date when I last left Gaza: July 11. My bureau chief Eli Fastman pulled me out because he thought I needed rest. On July 12, Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldvasser were kidnapped and the second Lebanon war started.

Since that time, my friends and colleagues, Steve Centanni, Olaf Wiig and Alan Johnston from the BBC have all been kidnapped in Gaza . Alan Johnston is still a hostage and Gaza has largely become a no-go zone for foreign reporters. There is still a story to tell there, and Palestinians want it told. But with mobsters and gunmen running wild, it just reached a point where the risk was unreasonable.

Now, however, we had a plan that minimizes the risk. The first element was secrecy. Only a handful of select people knew I was headed to Gaza. With the exception of what happens in Iraq, kidnappings are generally planned. If you show up unannounced, get in and get out, kidnappers don’t have time to put together a group to nab you and a plan for what to do with you after that. The second element was the coordination of a security team large enough to intimidate any would-be kidnappers. Palestinian Preventive Security officers were eager to provide security for me.

To understand that, you have to make a differentiation between the average Palestinian, members of violent anti-Israel groups, and the people who have been kidnapping reporters. The average Palestinian is trying to feed his family. Members of the armed fundamentalist groups hate Israel. Whether you agree with them and their attacks on civilians, they believe they are operating in the best interest of all Palestinians. The kidnappers in Gaza are just mobsters. They don’t care about the cause, they want money. Everyone, other than the mobsters, wants the reporters to come back to Gaza.

I was to meet the security detail and my Palestinian producer, cameraman and driver on the Palestinian side of the crossing. I had to wait a few minutes, but I felt secure because there was a police post between where I stood and the rest of the Gaza strip. Taxi drivers approached and offered me rides. “No thank you,” I told them. “I have a ride arranged.”

One was particularly insistent. He could tell I was a reporter and began to show me the business cards of reporters he had driven in the past. He offered me coffee and wanted to know who I was and who I was working for. As much as I usually enjoy the Arab hospitality in Gaza, I had nothing to gain by this driver learning who I was. There is always the chance that he could pass that information along. I tried gently to avoid conversation, but I’m afraid it came off as a snub.

Within a few minutes, my crew arrived followed by two pickup trucks filled with gunmen from the Preventive Security Forces. My producer, and someone I consider a close friend, Nael Ghaboun got out of the crew car. We had a warm greeting for each other. The last time I saw Nael, he was a bachelor — now his wife is expecting their first child in a couple of months. A tall, young, bearded man wearing a military gear vest and a Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder climbed out of one of the pickups. He approached me, stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Rami, the commander of this security detail. He told me he would personally guarantee my security and he meant it. As we would rush through our day, every time I got out of the car, Rami would appear by my side. Sometimes as we walked from one point to the next I would feel his hand resting on the back of my flack jacket.

I called my bureau chief. My watch read 9:12. I told him everything looked fine and that I’d call back in exactly an hour. We loaded up and raced away from the Erez crossing, fast enough to reach the Southern end of the Gaza Strip, get my work done, and get back on the Israeli side before anyone could start any trouble. In his usual jocular manor, Nael said, “Look at all this security for you my friend. You are like the Prime Minister.”

Gaza hasn’t changed much, but why should I expect change? A place can only get so impoverished, battle-scarred and grey until it reaches a constant state. The Gaza strip has been locked in a time warp since long before I started coming here. Some of the craters in the road caused by Israeli shells had been patched over, there seemed to be more garbage in the streets than the last time I was here. But the donkey carts, kids selling bread, wrinkled old men and covered up women walking on the tight streets all felt very familiar.

We sped down the entire length of the Gaza strip, past the evacuated Israeli settlements and along the Mediterranean Sea. When there was traffic, Rami’s gunmen would jump out of the pickups, clear the intersections and our convoy would continue speeding along. At 10:17 we reached the Preventive Security headquarters in Rafa, on the southern end of the strip. I was brought in to headquarters to meet the Chief of Rafa preventive security, Yousef Siyyam.

My goal was to do a story on the tunnels which are used to smuggle weapons, drugs and cigarettes into the Gaza strip from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israeli sources say 30 tons of explosives have been moved through 15 to 20 tunnels which run about a half mile under the border. Eight million bullets and tens of thousands of rifles have come over as well.

Now that Hamas is getting help from Iran, Israeli sources say sophisticated weapons are coming over — 122 millimeter grad rockets and “concourse” anti-tank missiles. These are similar to the types of weapons Hezbollah used in South Lebanon. They threaten Israel so much that some lawmakers are calling for a preventive strike in Gaza. The weapons also threaten to cement Hamas’ upper hand in the factional clashes with the Fatah party. Siyyam and his forces are trying to close the tunnels and this is an important story.

I was driven out to Philadelphi road, a sand and asphalt corridor which separates Egypt from Gaza. There the preventive security forces had excavated several giant holes in the sand and located two tunnels. There was an old rope leading to the bottom of one of the holes that was tied to nothing on top. Several of the security forces grabbed the top and assured me they were strong enough to hold me and I repelled down into the hole. Cameraman Eyad Elzeem followed.

The tunnel was so constricted it was impossible to turn around once you were in it. I had to go in backwards so I could face Eyad and talk to the camera. I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but I can’t imagine that anyone would make the half mile trip through these narrow dirt tubes dragging explosives. I certainly would not want the job of laying down there with hand tools carving the tunnels. The earth was so loose that sand poured on my head and there was nothing built to reinforce the tunnels. I was glad to get out of there and climb back out of the hole. However, there were a few more pictures I had hoped to shoot. That hadn’t been properly communicated with Eyad. So, I loaded up to go back down.

One of the Security forces stopped me and said “You cannot go back. The family that operates this tunnel has learned that you are here, and they are very angry. They say they will shoot down the tunnel.” I responded, “If you know who they are, why don’t you arrest them?” He responded, “We can’t. The family is armed, and they will fight.” And that really goes right to the heart many of Gaza’s troubles. The mob families do what they want and the legitimate forces don’t have the might or the will to stop them.

It was now 12:09. Time was running and factional clashes were flaring in the Gaza strip — five Palestinians were killed in Hamas vs. Fatah gun battles. I needed to leave. We loaded up our convoy and sped back north. By 1:20 p.m., I was back on the Palestinian side of the crossing. There was time for a quick couple of photos with Rami and his men to say thanks. I said my goodbyes to Nael and Eyad and slipped back to the Israeli side of the border without any trouble.

E-mail Mike

Here's what some FOX Fans are saying:

Just watched Benjamin Netanyahu on Your World w/ Neil Cavuto, and he seemed fairly confident that if the people were to decide, he could be the replacement for the current prime minister. Recently you wrote an article stating his popularity in Israel wasn't quite like it is in America. Is this a false sense of confidence? And also, what really are the chances Ehud Olmert steps down? Your perspective on the situation is not just typical commentary. Keep up the great work in Israel and stay safe! — J.W.

MIKE: J.W. Thanks for watching and especially for paying such close attention. I also saw Cavuto's interview with Netanyahu. The former prime minister presented himself very well. And it's true, if elections were held tomorrow, Netanyahu would do well. But he doesn't have the popularity to muster an uprising in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament). In a coalition government, the public is a step removed. Not only can an unpopular prime minister like Ehud Olmert stay in power by keeping 51 percent of the Knesset seats in his coalition, any opponent attempting to topple his government needs to have a majority ready to govern before he launches the rebellion. Against the odds, Olmert and his single digit popularity have hung on to his coalition. Looking at the situation today, it appears Olmert can stay in power until August when the Winograd Commission releases its final review of the Lebanon war. The final report will include recommendations. If the panel recommends he be removed, it's non-binding but it will be hard to imagine that Olmert can survive that. The current situation on the Gaza/Israel border could also impact Israeli politics. Olmert needs to stop the Qassam fire or it will hurt him. Palestinians are doing a lot to help Netanyahu. Before Israel pulled out of the Gaza settlements, Netanyahu said it was a mistake because Palestinians would just attack from the other side. I've never heard him stand up and say, "I told you so," but Hamas and Islamic Jihad have done their best to prove Netanyahu right.

Mike Tobin is a foreign correspondent for FOX News Channel based in Jerusalem. You can read his bio here.

Michael Tobin joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in 2001 and currently serves as a Chicago-based correspondent.