A man works underground in one of the Gaza tunnels. (Viceland / YouTube)

Civilians in the Gaza Strip have built thousands of tunnels along the Israeli-Egyptian border. These tunnels transport goods—such as milk and cigarettes—between Egypt and Israel. But they also are used for more dangerous activities.

According to The New York Times, Hamas uses the tunnels to receive weapons and send fighters into neighboring countries. These tunnels have created fear in Israeli communities near the border with Gaza, and now they are scaring Palestinian citizens.

People living on the edges of Gaza border towns, like the Israelis a few miles away, complain of hearing surreptitious digging in the wee hours, and voice a parallel anxiety about the tunnels being rapidly rebuilt near their homes becoming targets for Israeli strikes. They are raising unusually harsh — albeit anonymous, for fear of reprisal — criticism of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules Gaza, for putting people at risk. (They also sought anonymity to avoid their neighborhoods being targeted for Israeli strikes.)

“Dear God — we will be torn apart,” said a 42-year-old woman in Khuzaa, a village near the fence. She spoke on the condition she be identified only as Umm Nidal — Arabic for mother of Nidal, her eldest son — for fear of reprisal by Hamas. Gesturing at the lumpy sand lot where she believes a tunnel entry point is hidden next to the shelter of tin, tarp and wood where her family members have lived since their home was destroyed in the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, she said, “I am sure, one million percent, that those with tunnels under their houses cannot sleep, or taste the joy of life.”

The fear is that Hamas fighters will emerge from the tunnels into villages, or even homes. As a result, Israel has been attempting to find and destroy tunnels on its border. Israel’s leaders, the Times reports, said they destroyed 32 tunnels during the 2014 Gaza conflict, including 14 in Israeli territory. Hamas fighters killed five Israeli soldiers after using a tunnel to gain access to their base, and at least 23 Palestinian militants were killed after four separate tunnel invasions into Israel.

Hamas is rebuilding many of the tunnels that were destroyed. Its members view the tunnels as giving Gaza a sense of power against an enemy with far more firepower and sophisticated weaponry, such as drones.

“The Israelis can watch our fighters on the ground, but can they say what is inside a tunnel?” Taher el-Nounou, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, told the Times. “As long as there is Israeli aggression against us, the tunnels will be our priority.”

Building tunnels in residential areas is not illegal. The key, according to Sari Bashi, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch and an international law expert, is whether militant groups “take all feasible measures to protect civilians, including not taking the armed conflict to civilian areas.”

Vice looked at the Gaza tunnels as part of its “Black Markets: Dispatches” series.

—Posted by Batsheva Labowe-Stoll

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