Why Do Gazan Tunnel-Diggers Talk to Reporters?

INSERT DESCRIPTIONA Palestinian in a tunnel between Gaza and Egypt. (Photo: Moises Saman/The New York Times)

A pair of recent articles — one in The New York Times and the other, a McClatchy report, in The Seattle Times — describe in close-up detail how Palestinians living in Gaza have gotten back to work digging tunnels that lead into Egypt. These tunnels, through which weapons and all other sorts of goods are smuggled, were one of the main targets of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza.

I understand why the Gazan tunnel diggers have gotten back to work. What I can’t understand is why they so openly describe and show this work to reporters working for American newspapers.

What is the upside in admitting it? Why publicize a secret activity that your enemy has sworn to punish? If I had just gotten out of jail for a certain crime, I wouldn’t invite a reporter to accompany me on my rounds as I tried to re-establish my criminal enterprise.

So what are the Gazans thinking? What are they trying to accomplish? To whom are they trying to send their strong signal of resistance? And what will be the ramifications?

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COMMENTS: 44


  1. Mike says:

    I think the tunnel diggers are trying to expose what they perceive to be an injustice. If Gazans cannot transport goods across their borders freely, then “illegal” smuggling becomes a necessary evil. So I’m not sure the “criminal enterprise” analogy is a good one, at least not to Palestinian ears.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    the tunnel diggers are dependant on the media to let the world know how the Palestinians have been suffering under apartheid- literally driven underground for effective commerce- the Palestinians only hope of creating a functional state is for world opinion to force Israel to obey the rule of law- so the irony is that the only hope for a tunnel digger to escape his plight and become something better is if the whole system is exposed as suffering, and a more meaningful existence is allowed the Palestinians in the light of day- and don’t get it twisted- digging a tunnel is not a “criminal enterprise”- bombing them is

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  3. Student says:

    A few suggestions:

    1: If there are journalists in the tunnels there might be less risk of it being bombed. Killing journalists is not a good thing for israel.

    2: The tunnels have been the only way to supply a majority of the goods to gaza for a long time. It’s not as much a criminal enterprise as it’s the major import route for everything from food to fuel to weapons to medicin in the area. The local people views the attacks on the tunnels more as an extend of the try to starve them to death than as a legitimate attack.

    3: People do stupid things. They speak to journalists even when it’s not in their best interest, simply as they want to tell their side of the story.

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  4. Charlie says:

    I would imagine the Gazans are just happy to get any sort of sympathetic coverage in American newspapers.

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  5. Michael says:

    “‘They can destroy as much as they want, but the tunnels will just come back,’ Mr. Abu Adnan said. That spirit of defiance is at the center of the Gazan psyche.”

    It sends two important messages: that the Gazans won’t let the Israelis break their spirit through embargo and military action, and that the invasion was more about punishing and killing the Gazans than it was about achieving any legitimate military objectives.

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  6. Jonathan Katz says:

    Defiance and morale building, to show they were not defeated. Criminals swagger.

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  7. Caleb says:

    I have to agree with mike. The underground railroad might be a better example. It’s a message of hope.

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  8. Jeff says:

    That would be like a gang leader letting a grad student follow him around. Insane!

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  9. William says:

    These tunnels are present. The Israeli military knows about them, the American papers know about them, and they will continue to get made as long as the marginal profits made by them over their lifetime is cheaper than the opportunity cost of building them, and they will be operated as long as the profits made by operating one is greater than the opportunity cost of operating one.

    I don’t think talking to reporters changes any of these facts. I think they’re simply trying to express to the world an aspect of their existence.

    Ramifications? Maybe Israel tries to stop the tunnels rather than attacking Gaza above-ground (or in addition to attacking Gaza above-ground).

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  10. Richard Klibaner says:

    Why do bank robbers boast to their buddies about the job they just pulled off? Why do mortgage brokers talk to radio reporters about how many deadbeats they managed to put into variable rate mortgages? First, they are proud of their accomplishments. Second, we are social animals and our default is to reply to the questions of anyone who appears interested in us. I think your question evinces an excessive faith in the economic/rational man model.

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  11. Charlie says:

    One thing confuses me about the so-called embargo. Why can’t Gazans bring in their legal goods via their border with Egypt? Is Egypt part of the embargo?

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  12. NM says:

    Your comparison with going to jail is both fitting and infuriating. Fitting, because Gaza is an open-air prison. And infuriating because it seems to imply that Gazans are guilty; they are not. They live under a murderous apartheid and blockade. Israel fires on the few fishing boats trying to venture in the mediterranean sea to get *food*.

    Weapons? Give me a break. Israel uses laser guided 1 ton bombs on civilians.

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  13. Gene says:

    It is entirely possible that Hamas, like al-Qaeda, is trying to use the media as their propaganda outlet. By showing reporters that they are still digging they are trying to prove to the rest of the Muslim world (specifically those who are marginalized and most likely to join their cause) that Israel has not been able to stop them, and as Mike above said, that the “injustice” of Israel’s actions should serve as a call to arms for new recruits to the Hamas cause.

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  14. P says:

    The answer is that the Gazans are very, very stupid.

    Almost as stupid as the commenters above making excuses for their barbaric behavior.

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  15. kip says:

    Or perhaps its propaganda: they want it to appear that they have more tunnels and numbers than they actually have.

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  16. anonymous says:

    Misdirection.

    The enemy is now busy looking for tunnels, while in reality the Gazans are building hot air balloons.

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  17. DJH says:

    A couple possibilities:

    1. They want public attention for their cause, and they view P.R. as strategically important enough to be worth the possible loss of secrecy of the specific tunnel(s) they’re delving.

    2. They’re flattered that a reporter is talking to them and are willing to spill their guts, and just aren’t thinking about whether or not it’s a good idea for them to do so.

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  18. John Neff says:

    It is just another way of saying “we will never be defeated”.

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  19. Burt says:

    Hey Frankenduf – Digging a tunnel to smuggle goods and weapons between the borders of two countries is a criminal activity, the last I checked.

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  20. John M. says:

    The Palestinians wouldn’t NEED tunnels if they would just stop their terrorism. The only reasons the borders are closed is to keep the suicide bombers out. And no, the suicide bombers are not just “responding to the occupation”. Gaza is not occupied. These are not “sympathy bombings” in support of the West Bank.

    Regarding the war, Israel has a right to defend itself. Targeting schoolchildren with Quassam rockets is not acceptable. We would not allow it if Canada rocketed Detroit, even if the casualties were few. Moreover, Israel takes INCREDIBLE measures to minimize civilian casualties, to the extent of PHONING people to evacuate a building before it’s hit. But Hamas insists on using innocents as human shields.

    The only POSSIBLE argument against any of this is if one claims Israel has no right to exist. Which is, no doubt, the view of many here.

    “Criminals swagger” is right on.

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  21. David says:

    Israel portrays the tunnels as a means of smuggling weapons and other “bad stuff” into Gaza. While this is true, the tunnels are also used for basic items such as food, fuel and medicine.

    By showing that the tunnels are not solely a mechanism of terrorism and rocket attacks, Gaza reduces the sympathy towards Israel.

    As a previous comment mentioned, it’s probably pretty clearthe tunnels are being repaired. What is left is to spin the message around the purpose of the tunnels.

    (I haven’t seen the reporting on the tunnels, but I’m assuming they aren’t saying “hey we’re importing rockets only to blow up Israeli school-children”…)

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  22. Susan says:

    Charlie asks ‘One thing confuses me about the so-called embargo. Why can’t Gazans bring in their legal goods via their border with Egypt? Is Egypt part of the embargo?

    Well, Charlie, and all you others who appear to know nothing about the situation, that is because Egypt closed its border with Gaza long ago. Closed as in closed to all movement of people and goods. Closed as in Egypt doesn’t want to deal with the problem of Gaza. Israel’s border with Gaza was open until Gaza started to bomb them. Israel sent lots of aid to Gaza, and provided lots of jobs in Israel to Palestinians in Gaza. Until the missles started to fly. Think about that for a while.

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  23. Travis L says:

    “That would be like a gang leader letting a grad student follow him around. Insane!”

    Kudos to you, Jeff — hysterical!

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  24. chuck 2.0 says:

    Gee, since Israel voluntarily left Gaza after pounding Hamas…no more rockets. And Israel opened the supply route so Gaza’s population could begin rebuilding.

    Then today, Hamas sets off a bomb in Israel, killing a soldier…now the border crossing is closed again. So…the tunnels are required only when Hamas is attacking Israel.
    Or if you are smuggling weapons, which Israel will not let through the checkpoints only to have them fired right back at their civilians.

    No other Country at war would stop firing 3 hours a day so humanitarian relief could go to civilians. Can you imagine that in Dafur or the Congo?

    Now that Hamas is elected in Gaza, Gaza has the government they always wanted… a government built upon destruction rather than rebuilding, and educating the next generation so they can have a better life than their parents.

    Every civilian killed strengthens Hamas’ public relations effort. No wonder they fire rockets from apartment houses and schools. It is a government whose goal is the martyring of it’s own population.

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  25. Avi Rappoport says:

    Anyone who thinks there’s an easy answer, or even an easy question for Gaza is not paying attention.

    Some militants, with more or less agreement from some or other parts of Hamas and the people of Gaza have been shooting rockets into Israel to endanger and kill civilians. The Israeli army has been retaliating against those people, knowing they will endanger and kill civilians. Both sides feel justified.

    It’s a tragic feedback loop and incredibly hard to break. Even when there are cease-fires, one provocative act can make the whole thing explode, and the fanatics on both sides know it. Somehow there has to be a solution, but I don’t know what it is.

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  26. Tzipporah says:

    Because Gazans are just as addicted to publicity as they are to self-sabotage.

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  27. nancy says:

    to really understand these things you have to fall quite a bit further from grace and completely avoid thinking with your head… just your heart.

    It’s how i constantly stay under observation by someone either near or dear or feared.

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  28. Ethan says:

    Why do terrorists place calls taking responsibility for an attack? Isn’t that the same – what is the upside in admitting it? Why publicize a secret activity that your enemy has sworn to punish? Why did the IRA, the Weather Underground, the FLQ and ETA call to take responsibility for bombings that they took pains to hide before the fact?

    It’s to gain street cred and to let your enemy know that you are alive and well and aren’t a force to be trifled with.

    To my mind, a more interesting question would be how do the tunnel builders choose which reporters they decide to share secrets with and which ones they don’t. I don’t think anyone from the Wall Street Journal or from Fox News has been invited to see any tunnel building. My unscientific guess is that only sympathetic reporters (like ones who use the term “militant” or “fighter” rather than “terrorist”) get the invite.

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  29. dd says:

    Because people do stupid things.

    Not nearly as stupid as Palestinians spending generations trying to destroy Israel instead of trying to build a society.

    To paraphrase Abba Eban, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

    Or to paraphrase Golda Meir, there will be peace when Hamas will learn to love their children more than they hate Jews.

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  30. anonymous says:

    Pride?

    That’s pretty much the basis of their movement anyway. And who can blame them. Certainly not the Israelis, who espouse similar feelings towards their own state.

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  31. marc says:

    I presume you have correlated this activity of digging a tunnel with criminality in order to get some activity on this blog…

    the israeli army has geo therm equipment and an annual budget of in excess of $15bn.. do you really think a couple of pictures comprise “new intelligence” that can be news to such a well resourced outfit.

    I dont need to remind anyone that caging and segregating humans like rats in a 10 mile city square has been tried before in the last century….but in open defiance such as publishing these pictures ….there is a declaration of hope ……..an declaration which is far more powerful when shared

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  32. Philip Pappas says:

    The Gazan situation is an tough thing. It has been documented that many of the Gazan parents teach their children that they will grow up and take back and blot out the Israelis. Which is unfortunate and not a winning strategy. A nonviolent movement would be much more successful and would put worldwide favor in the Gazans hands. But, as it is, The Gazans target civilians and Israelis target military targets.

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  33. Eric M. Jones says:

    Why show pictures of tunnels?

    Aren’t people proud of their works? Aren’t people especially proud of their works that are used for war? The tunnels are the best weapons they have to brag about. The US and Israelis show pictures of their airplanes, the Gazans show their holes in the ground. That’s the best they can do.

    A terrorist is one who has a bomb but no air force.

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  34. galie says:

    Many blames Gazans for their own fate… Is the alternative the West Bank? Loosing pockets of land day after day to new settlements…
    In WWII France faced the same dilemma to German occupation… resist or concede?. Concede will bring far less deaths on any war… but many feel they will feel “dead” on the inside. It amazes me many have problem understanding the importance of the sense of injustice.

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  35. Ms says:

    Could it be that they are advertising their services? Tunnel #38 now open for business!

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  36. bystander says:

    The blinkered comments of many Israeli apologists never cease to amaze me. You listen to these people and get a sense that they are as pure as the driven snow, constantly reaching out the hand of peace to an ungrateful and aggressive neighbour. The weird bewilderment with which many Israelis regard Palestinian anger is plain annoying. Do these people really truly think there is no legitimacy to Palestinian grievances? A thousand innocent Palestinian civilians killed yet Israel is congratulated for their morality in not ‘targeting’ civilians… hmm

    Interesting the way you analogise these tunnel builders with criminals.

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  37. david says:

    I guess I need a history lesson. Before the 1967 war, Gaza was part of Egypt and the West Bank was part of Jordan. When Egypt got the Sinai back, why didn’t they get Gaza? Why isn’t the West Bank, or at least most of it part of Jordan now?

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  38. Victor Grauer says:

    Well, why did the New York Times publish, on the front page, no less, their observations on how easy it would be for a terrorist to flood the New York subway system? Not only did they mention this possibility, they presented an extremely clever and detailed scenario for how such a thing could be accomplished. Why does the US media regularly report, in alarming detail, on the weaknesses they’ve found in our airport security systems? We live in an age when people have forgotten to think through the consequences of their actions. In case you hadn’t noticed.

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  39. Matthew R. says:

    This is the only way Gazans can take pride. What else have Gazans accomplished except build those tunnels? Perhaps if their “government” spent a little more on education and a little less on rockets to provoke Israel,

    The events of the past few months leads me to believe that the Israeli government cares more for the Gazan population than Hamas does.

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  40. JoelP says:

    “I guess I need a history lesson. Before the 1967 war, Gaza was part of Egypt and the West Bank was part of Jordan. When Egypt got the Sinai back, why didn’t they get Gaza? Why isn’t the West Bank, or at least most of it part of Jordan now?”

    Well, the two answers are slightly different. Israel offered Gaza to Egypt, but Egypt had no desire to be destabilized by admitting in so many terrorists.
    The West Bank, on the other hand, is very closely tied into Israel. It is difficult for anyone to say which lands there are Muslim and which are Jewish (though that is becoming easier).

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  41. Michael Mitchell II says:

    If the enemy has sworn to punish the action, doesn’t it become something of a sunk cost? And if it is in fact a sunk cost, then aren’t rational players supposed to ignore them?

    It’s actually something of a game theory problem in which both Israel and occupants of the Gaza strip find themselves with two options. Israel has the choice of either going public with their threat of punishing smugglers, or to not publicly threaten smugglers. The smugglers, likewise, can choose to go public with their smuggling, or keep it quiet. If one party were to go public while the other stayed quiet, the quiet party would suffer humiliation at the hands of the other publicly. If both go public, both save face to their own people and to the U.S.

    Now the real question is, wouldn’t they both benefit if they both kept quiet?

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  42. PVLB says:

    Funny how a question that actually has nothing to do with the recent war is again hijacked by the pro-Israel, pro-Palestine “think-tanks”.

    The tunnel diggers incentives, and thus the question that was posed has nothing to do with the politics of the region and is solely the consequence of very basic incentives.

    As with all things, I first thought of monetary motivations (or supplies since food and medicine are probably far more valuable in a place where there are limited necessities). However, like in the rest of the world, the blood and sweat that produce the means of providing products and services are rarely shed by those who actually profit from it (beyond the initial wages of actually building the infrastructure required).

    After all, when the work is done on a building, I doubt the common construction worker who helped build it would get a share of the rent money.

    So there’s really only one proper incentive: personal social credit.

    I doubt these diggers really see themselves as the savior of their people nor do they think the tunnels will annoy the Israelis enough to stop the blockade. But the sheer fact that their face is shown trying to justify a victimless act (at least in their own POV) which allows the people of Gaza access to supplies ASIDE from weapons grants them great satisfaction while actually doing the interview which is then encouraged further when his neighbors congratulate him for risking severe punishment to bring to light the “perseverance of the people of Gaza against the atrocious crimes perpetrated by the Israelis”.

    I’m certain other tunnel diggers would witness this kind of “reward” being dispensed from time to time which would lead THEM to think “hey, I risked my neck building those tunnels too, why shouldn’t I get some praise as well?”

    After all, building a tunnel and doing an interview is probably far less dangerous than strapping a bomb on your chest or launching primitive rockets.

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  43. Toby Edison says:

    The motive behind what the the Gazans are doing is simple game theory. The are trying to convince the Israelis that the tunneling effort is wide spread and therefore the Israelis must devote resources to countering the tunneling efforts. Just like the US and Russia built up their nuclear arsenals and then tried to keep the real capabilities secret. Both sides had to build expensive surveillence equipment to keep tabs on the other. These investments in spying distracted each side from other military activities. Thus for the price of the labor of diggers and some carefully publicized tunnels the Gazans force the Israelis to dedicated millions and perhaps billions of dollars in detection efforts. Its fairly sophisticated arms race.

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  44. Jonathan Katz says:

    The only secret is the location of specific tunnels. They’re not disclosing that, and if a reporter were found to be carrying GPS to a tunnel used for weapons they’d probably kill him.

    According to press reports, there are tunnels used for weapons and different tunnels used for consumer goods. The Israelis only target the weapons tunnels (one wonders how they know which is which, but apparently they do). It is advantageous for the builders of consumer goods tunnels to publicize them.

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