The other side of the tunnels is the skills and capabilities of the Gaza Strip’s Palestinians. Setting aside this underground development’s military purpose, we can only marvel at the resourcefulness, energy, daring, inventiveness and learning abilities of the designers and excavators. The talents invested — wasted, rather — in these tunnels, in the military delusions of a society under siege, are just a reminder of what is unrecognized or unexpressed. Before they were destroyed, the goods tunnels at Rafah, between Gaza and Egypt, siphoned off much of the skills and energy that are now reflected in the maze of defensive or offensive burrows.
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If not for the tunnels and rockets, the Gaza Strip would never be mentioned in the Israeli media. From our perspective it nearly fell into the sea, together with its almost two million residents. So even if we don’t openly acknowledge the Gazan skills behind the tunnels, they are the only beneficiaries of free publicity from the Israeli machine for generating panic and concealing the true causes for concern. Occasionally Gaza pops up in our media as a mute or inarticulate community of welfare cases that needs the world’s generosity and the kindness of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (which rescues sick lions from Gaza’s zoo and facilitates their transfer to Tul Karm, in the West Bank).
The Israel Defense Forces was slow to recognize the threat of the tunnels, Amir Oren writes, due to “a personal and organizational culture of getting drunk on successes without simultaneously planning for the enemy’s next move.” Here’s another explanation: The Israeli jailers, that is commanders and senior politicians, fall victim to the conditions of imprisonment they themselves created. They restricted to a minimum the living space and the range of movement and development of Gazans and then concluded that they cannot handle and do not need space, dreams, plans and their realization.
The jailers in the IDF and the Defense Ministry reduced the Palestinians to the physical dimensions of the cage for which they were designated. They know them only from the welfare lines or from the interrogation and torture rooms, where they are held in conditions of extreme humiliation and inferiority. In short, their jailers are only capable of disrespecting Palestinians. Their humanity is not a factor they consider.
Like any society, the Gaza Strip is full of skills and capabilities in every area, together with the desire to develop them. Diplomats and aid workers who are allowed into Gaza by dint of their positions in the charity chain always marvel at the energy and talent (and humor) that they find. But the conditions of mass incarceration not only conceal these capabilities, they also limit and erode them.
A large portion of personal, familial and societal time, energy and skills are wasted on daily actions that should be simple (turning on lights, drinking, using a computer, doing homework). They are not simple in Gaza, whether on account of Israeli restrictions on bringing in raw materials and construction materials, or on account of the Fatah-Hamas conflict (which affects the electricity supply, for example). Another large portion of energy is wasted in waiting for a permit to leave the Strip by the small number of Gazans who have any hope of being granted permission by the chief jailer, Israel.
A 25-year-old blockade has reduced, shrunk and buried the plans, initiatives and dreams of Gazans. Something as basic as going abroad for continuing medical education, or taking part in a joyful activity like a children’s choir festival in the West Bank city of Bir Zeit is like going to the moon. Gazans have no aspirations and make no plans, in order not to be disappointed. Is it any wonder, then, that many seek to emigrate and many already have? Or that some are happy, or are forced, to put their skills in the service of the only possible collective act of defiance — the tunnels?