It has to be one of the world's worst jobs: digging the tunnels under the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt to smuggle supplies across the border into the Palestinian enclave.
With the constant threat of bombs and collapse, French filmmaker Alexis Monchovet follows Palestinian tunnel workers as they work in the dead of night to move bag after bag of goods through the narrow winding passageways.
The trade continues even though the Israeli blockade has been partially lifted and the crossing from Egypt into Gaza opened since nine activists were killed on a recent peace flotilla.
Israel often bombs and destroys the tunnels, but the workers somehow manage to smile through as they build more and keep the goods and their own black market economy moving.
See Alexis's film at the top of the page, plus watch his previous story from inside The Gaza Tunnels, which was broadcast by Dateline in February 2008.
Filmmaker Alexis Monchovet was online from France for an hour after the program on Sunday 12th September to answer your questions about filming in the cramped and dangerous conditions of the smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
The chat ran from 9.30pm-10.30pm AEST, so apologies to viewers of later showings, but Alexis was only available online for a limited time. Anyone who missed the chat can replay it below.
Filmmaker Alexis Monchovet answers our questions to explain more about his story for the Dateline blog.
What sort of attack is it that opens the story - a rocket attack?
No, it was an Israeli raid. Israeli F-16s targeted smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt at Rafah. These air strikes followed the firing of a rocket from Gaza into Israel. It's always the same story. As soon as a rocket is fired into Israel, the Israeli air force responds by targeting tunnels. The same thing happened no later than last Saturday. Israeli warplanes launched three strikes against the southern Gaza Strip, wounding two people. One of the tunnels collapsed and the Palestinians who were working in it have not yet made it back to the surface. But most of the time, the smugglers leave the border area as soon as they hear about the launching of a rocket by Palestinian militants. Unfortunately, the situation is very scary for the families who live very close to the border. Tunnels are all around their houses. So that they have to run away during the air strikes. That night, Hiyad Keshta went with his wife and children to sleep in a house far away from the bombing.
How long is the tunnel that's featured?
Abu Sleeman dug his tunnel very close to the border, so that it's not so long, only 300 metres, with three exits in Egypt. He needs several exits in case the Egyptian police discovers one. Abu Sleeman's tunnel is not very deep either, only seven metres. The longer the tunnel is, the more expensive -- Abu Sleeman wants to save money. He doesn't bring weapons, only daily use products that are not allowed to get through crossing points. In the end, he does make money, but not as much as what the weapons dealers do. In order to keep their activities hidden, the weapons dealers usually dig one kilometre long, 40 metre deep tunnels. Abu Sleeman doesn't have enough money for that.
Is Abu Sleeman the owner of this tunnel?
Abu Sleeman is the owner of this tunnel. He worked for a long time as simple digger in other people's tunnels, but after Hamas took over, he decided to dig his own tunnel with his two brothers. It's a financial risk. He spent $US 70,000 to dig his tunnel, which collapsed during the 2009 war, so that he had to spend another $US 20,000 to fix it. But since the beginning of the blockade, tunnels in Gaza are a very good business.
Is Abu Ghazi an employee of Abu Sleeman?
He's his little brother. As well as his partner. Abu Sleeman is the oldest, that's why he doesn't go inside the tunnel. He's in charge of dealing with money issues, accomplices in Egypt, customers in Gaza, etc. Abu Ghazi is in charge of managing the workers inside the tunnel.
What sort of materials go through this tunnel besides cigarettes and cement?
Anything can be sold in Gaza. Any product that is useful in Gaza but cannot cross the border. It can be cement, cows, chocolate, motorcycles, computers... If someone in Gaza wants a product from Egypt, he just asks Abu Sleeman if it's possible to bring it. Abu Sleeman buys it in Egypt and sells it for a much higher price in Gaza. Regarding daily use products, Abu Sleeman is very proud to say that he can bring everything except cars.
How long did you spend filming this story?
I spent three months with them. I started the shooting on January 19th 2009 -- the first day after the end of the war. At that time, they realized that their tunnel had collapsed. I filmed them fixing the tunnel and starting the traffic again. Repairing the tunnel was a very long and a difficult process. Especially because they were disturbed by Israeli bombings. I was with them every day during these three months. The harshness of smugglers' life made things difficult. There is a certain amount of violence in their relationship. But when the tunnel was ready, they let me follow them on their way to Egypt, where they purchased many products. They let me follow them because after those three months spent together, they considered me as a member of the team.
How did you earn the trust of the tunnelers?
The thing is that all of them are wanted in Israel and in Egypt, that's why they don't care speaking without a mask. It was a kind of provocation for them to let me follow them after the war against tunnels: they wanted the world to know that despite the bombing, they still carry on the tunnel building. They let me follow them also because I've known them for five years. I've covered the news in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal, especially the smuggling issue. So that they didn't suspect me of being an intelligence agent under a journalist cover. Originally, they didn't expect me to stay for three months with them. They thought I would stay one week and that's it! For a while, they were surprised to see me every morning. But finally they got used to me.
Were there any scary moments for you while filming this story?
So many times! It's been a very hard shooting. I got pretty scared when I was filming Hiyad and his family running away from their house to flee the bombing. I got also scared when I had to stay in a tunnel for four hours. It's really a frightening experience. The tunnel is very narrow, it can collapse any time. I was afraid to be arrested by the Egyptian police as well, when the smugglers get their products there. But the most scary moment was when I had to stay the whole day at the tunnel entry while Israeli F-16s were in the sky ready to drop bombs. The smugglers don't move, so that the only thing you can do is to stay with them... But you start to wonder if they stay here because they actually know what to do or because they are just crazy.
9th September 2010