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Covert Architecture: Inside Gaza's Secret Labyrinth Of Tunnels And Bunkers

The war in Palestine has gone underground – quite literally.

In recent weeks, conflict has once again erupted in Gaza, and at the center of the crisis lies some of the most controversial subterranean infrastructure in the world. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to destroy a complex network of around 40 ‘terror tunnels’, some of which are over a kilometer in length, used by Hamas militants to infiltrate Israeli territory.

The tunnels were excavated over many years, and whilst their clandestine nature will have necessitated a slow, lo-tech construction process, the passages are nevertheless ambitious in their scale and functionality. They descend up to 30 meters below the surface, have many entrances and branches, and connect to bunkers used as command centers, weapons stores, and safe houses for Hamas’s political and military leaders during Israeli military operations.

Regardless of your political viewpoint on the situation, these tunnels must be noted as extraordinary examples of engineering in impossibly restrictive circumstances. A 1.8km long tunnel discovered in October 2013 was formed entirely from 800 tons of concrete, amounting to 25,000 slabs – and throughout its construction, there was no way to manufacture concrete independently within the Gaza Strip. Therefore, the materials must have been smuggled from Egypt via other tunnels, or brought in by international organizations.


The extent and intricacy of the underground labyrinth is said to have taken Israel’s intelligence agency by surprise – but the tunnels traversing the border between Gaza and Israel pale in comparison to those between the war-torn exclave and Egypt. Used to transport goods and people beneath the heavily patrolled border, the ‘smuggling tunnels’ originally numbered over 1,600 and were more sophisticated than any of the offensive passages currently being dismantled by the Israeli Defense Forces.

The scale of these tunnels was on another level entirely, being one of the Hamas government’s primary projects since the blockade of Gaza began in 2007. At the peak of their utilization, industries connected to smuggling via the tunnel network employed 40,000 to 70,000 people (depending on source), and provided up to 40% of the government’s income. Everything that was forbidden to pass across the border was surreptitiously transported deep beneath the earth – building materials, food, medicine, clothing, livestock, fuel, computers and household goods, as well as weapons and illegal immigrants. Some tunnels were even equipped with fully operational railways, capable of transporting vehicles – 13,000 cars were smuggled into Gaza in 2011 alone.


However, since the ousting of Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian Military has been conducting a prolonged campaign to put an end to the tunnels’ use. The techniques used to demolish, dismantle or decommission the smuggling passages have been varied – soldiers have been bulldozing entrances regularly throughout the past year, and the tunnels themselves have reportedly been flooded with everything from concrete, to water, to raw sewerage. As of this month, the total number of tunnels destroyed stands at 1,639 – this secret labyrinth is on the verge of extinction.


Even when both Egypt and Israel declare they have achieved the strategic goal of destroying the tunnels, the reality is that they will never be able to guarantee that the subterranean network has been fully nullified. Entrances to the passages lie beneath civilian houses, branching out from basements and in remote regions where it is easy for construction to remain camouflaged throughout the tunneling process. The former head of Israel’s combat engineering corps Shimon Daniel acknowledges that Hamas will not be easily deterred despite the immense pressure on their infrastructure:

“Of course Hamas will try to rebuild the tunnels. The moment we go out of Gaza, they will begin to dig.”

If what Daniel says is to be believed, it appears the tug of war over construction and demolition of this covert form of architecture will last as long as the Israeli-Palestine conflict itself – and there is no end in sight.

Yours in hiding,

The Angry Architect


Images Via: The Funambulist, Peter Seljan, Electronic Intifada, NPR Media, Haaretz

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