Dateline follows smugglers in the cramped, dangerous tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border.
Airdate: 
Sunday, September 12, 2010 - 20:30
Channel: 
SBS

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.

Live Chat

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.

 

Blog

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

Transcript

Last year, you might have caught a TV series called 'The Worst Jobs in History'. Well, Dateline's first story tonight would qualify for a run in that series. It's about four Palestinians who earn their living working in the secret tunnels that have been built under Gaza and into Egypt. Even though Middle East peace talks have restarted, the Israeli blockade of the battered enclave partially lifted and the crossing from Egypt into Gaza opened following the Israeli attack on the Turkish peace flotilla, Palestinian smugglers still ply their dangerous underground trade. Our report tonight is from a French film crew that gained extremely rare access to the Palestinian tunnellers. The story is actually told through the eyes of the tunnellers themselves, starting with Hiyad Keshta and his family.

FILMMAKER: Alexis Monchovet

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): What is that? The electricity is gone;.. come on, come on. Gather round, come on.

LITTLE GIRL (Translation): Planes! Mum!

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Don't be scared, come here; Keep moving, better than leaving at midnight!

MOTHER (Translation): Move.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Where is Aya, your sister? Where's Aya/

CHILD (Translation): With mum.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Come on Aya, Ranin and Nour. That's a bomb there;. I don't know, a fire maybe or a bomb.

CHILD (Translation): There, a house is on fire.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): So you want to get out of here?

MOTHER (Translation): I don't know, it's not safe even at the schools.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): What about old Abu Ibrahim's house, is it empty? Tell him it is just for the night. Come here, come here, don't be scared - don't be scared. Maybe near Bahloul's station;. Where are you going? Don't worry, there is no bombing here.

MOTHER (Translation): It's at the border; we need to go east.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): In the guest room - all of you in the guest room.

RADIO BROADCAST (Translation): We stress that the planes are still flying over and I ask the citizens to take extreme care and caution and to be alert and not to approach the areas being bombed at the moment.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Are you staying at home or where? Don't you hear the bombing, it was deafening here.

He said he didn't hear anything over there, he says it is normal - he is sitting at home. Near Salahiddine, as they call it. Don't be scared. That is a house that has just been bombed, it makes this sound.

Did you hear that? Don't be scared. Stop the car horn - that's bombing for you. Don't be afraid, don't be.

Look at us, we are all sitting, the night is still young - it has just started - the bombing is coming!

MAN (Translation): Did you hear that, how can we sleep, look around you - everyone is still up. There, did you hear that? There's the bombing, did you hear it?

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Every night we have to flee with the children to protect them and then take them back. Whenever there's bombing we have to flee with the children;. A shit life!

MAN (Translation): If the F-16 was effective against tunnels they wouldn't be working on them again. It's effects is negligible - the do it intentionally to hurt people.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): The owner of this tunnel is Khan Younis, they don't care about us - they don't care about you or your house being bombed.

MAN (Translation): We signed a petition saying we don't want tunnels and sent it to National Security but the next day the number of tunnels was doubled instead. As if we asked them to dig more, not the other way around. They asked for the names of those who oppose the tunnels and we did send them the names. They did the opposite and increased the number of tunnels.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): We dig wide on the sides here and go through the tunnel to see where the bombs hit, here or further ahead and so on. We repair it from here and tidy up behind us - reconnecting it.

MAN (Translation): Does National Security know?

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): It's no problem. We're good lets go! We're Special Forces here.

Clear it on both sides Rami - move back - Stop him Riad, don't do anything else - let him go through.

ABU GHAZI (Translation): Just a moment Samir, a plank - keep it ready for now.

SAMIR (Translation): It's a rock there Abu Ghazi.

ABU GHAZI (Translation): Pass the plank Samir.

SAMIR (Translation): It's ready - it smells like gunpowder Abu Ghazi - look it's powder from the missile.

ABU GHAZI (Translation): Is the plank here? Thank you, thank you Samir.

SAMIR (Translation): Dig with you? Let me clean it properly.

ABU GHAZI (Translation): Don't move the sand here, Samir - all this sand is toxic.

Hey guy! My head is spinning, we need to finish. I am going to burn out; I have a headache - a strong headache.

SAMIR (Translation): He is going to burn out;.. take your foot off the trowel.

MAN (Translation): How is it inside?

SAMIR (Translation): We cleared the sand from the bombing - you only get a headache when you get out.

ABU GHAZI (Translation): They are from the missiles, they are the missiles handles, this one is broken - this is still okay. That is the tip of the missile.

SAMIR (Translation): This hits you like that, through the chest and you are in a thousand pieces, they will pick you up - pieces of meat, Israel just wants to show it's might.

MAN (Translation): Between Israel and Palestine it's like this, our children are watching - it is like Tom and Jerry. Israel is like Tom and the Palestinians are Jerry and Jerry always thumps Tom. Tom thinks he is smart, saying he'll get him and Jerry says, "œYeah, sure, I'm going to get you!" That's our story;.. like a cartoon. They won't admit it - they oppress us and oppress us and then it explodes, like the rocket they fire. The greater the pressure, the bigger the explosion and it is the same with the Palestinian people. And Israel will suffer, not us.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Tell them to come the exit is open. Abu Ghazi is in the Sinai, he is removing the sandbags so we can open up, we'll wait for our Egyptian suppliers, they'll bring us the goods and then our work starts.

Tell the guys not to make any noise, okay? We don't want any noise. These are for Riad, they're cigarettes. Bags for Salah - I don't know if they'll fit - I doubt it. They will pass here but not over there where the planks are.

MAN (Translation): Should we send them back?

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Put them aside for the moment. Alex these men are Egyptian, from Sinai. Upper Egyptians - here's one and the second one. How is it going with the Egyptian army.

EGYPTIAN (Translation): It's really bad.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Any roadblocks on your way here?

EGYPTIAN (Translation): Normal.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Do they give you back the goods they find?

EGYPTIAN (Translation): They confiscate them.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): What does your boss do, does he pay bribes?

EGYPTIAN (Translation): It is pointless to try and get them back. The trucks are delivering to other tunnels.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): You make $100 per carton. You make $100 profit from us, then there's the tunnel transport costs - it does not make that much a tunnel, if you add the expenses up it's not that profitable.

EGYPTIAN (Translation): In Egypt, all the merchants want to work with us.

HIYAD KESHTA (Translation): Are there any police? Have the trucks arrived? Pass them down. The bastard, couldn't he put them in two bags. Did you bump your head?

It's a very long way, the tunnel turns right then left then up to the right, it's like two tunnels long.

SAMIR (Translation): Tomorrow I'll do the accounts and everyone gets his share. Fine. Don't worry. I'll call you when I have done the accounts tomorrow. Okay, bye.

MAN (Translation): Peace be with you. So Abu Saleiman, what does Abu Awad owe you?

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): Abu Awad took 73 bags from me, right? 36 plus 37 that's 73!

MAN (Translation): 73 bags of cement.

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): That's 4500 shekels, right?

MAN (Translation): That's 2900 a ton.

ABU AWAD (Translation): So I have paid you everything I owe you. Perfect. Now everything is okay - thank you. I am always at your service Abu Awad. I hope you can bring some good quality cement.

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): Next time I will bring you 10 tons of white cement.

ABU AWAD (Translation): Go ahead. But good quality white cement, not mixed with sand. God bless Egypt that sends it. I swear if I leave Gaza, it's straight to jail.

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): I have to pay the workers.

Note that Samir Abu Shakra received $1600 for all the workers who worked with him.

SAMIR (Translation): Abu Zayed worked one extra day.

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): One extra day, one less day - what do I care? I'm giving you $1600 and you sort it out.

SAMIR (Translation): Fine, but some days nine guys worked and some days less.

ABU SALEIMAN (Translation): Don't you have your note book? If he worked nine days, you pay him for nine days - your driving me mad!

SAMIR (Translation): Calm down.

GEORGE NEGUS: A touch of black humour there. Gripping stuff from the French production company, Playprod. Meanwhile, despite the recent murder by Hamas of four Israelis in the West Bank and more bombing by Israel, on Tuesday, the next round of the renewed peace talks are due to take place in Egypt. Where there's talk there's hope, I guess. If you go to our website after the program, Alex Monchovet, who filmed in the tunnels will be online for an hour to answer your questions. There's also a blog from him and a photo gallery of the tunnels and the amazing array of goods smuggled through them. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.

Directors

Alexis Monchovet

Stephane Marchetti

Producer

Hamed Keshta

Camera

Alexis Monchovet

Editor

Stephane Marchetti

Translation

Mahmoud Gzawi

Graphics

Yan-Ali Tabarand

Music

Damien Traversaz

Filastine «Crescent Occupation»

12th September 2010