Hamas’ Smuggling Tunnels and What National Geographic Does Not Want You to Know

The most alarming development to  have emerged in the recent hostilities between Hamas and Israel was Hamas’ use of long-range missiles smuggled from Iran to target Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It raises compelling questions about Hamas’ increasing role as Iran’s proxy, and how to stop the smuggling of weapons from Iran into Gaza.

These questions intensified when London’s Sunday Times reported that around the time the cease fire was announced, Israeli intelligence satellites detected a cargo ship at the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas loaded with rockets and other weapons components believed to be bound for Gaza.

The New York Times described the smuggling of long-range missiles from Iran to Gaza, citing Israeli security sources: Long-range Iranian Fajr-5 rockets are shipped from Iran to Sudan, driven through Egypt, taken apart and transported through tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, facilitated by Hamas employees and re-assembled locally with the help of Iranian technical experts.

Ibrahim Menai, a Palestinian who owns several smuggling tunnels between Sinai and Gaza, was interviewed by CNN, confirming that Grad missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and advanced shoulder-held anti-tank missiles are smuggled directly through these tunnels while Fajr-5 missiles– with a range of some75 km – are “most likely hidden among other merchandise that is loaded onto big trucks that go through the big tunnels” from Egypt.

So when National Geographic decided to include a feature in its December issue on “The Tunnels of Gaza,” readers might have thought they would find a timely and revealing behind-the-scenes account of how weapons make their way from Iran into Gaza.

The article included nothing of the sort. It went to press just as  hostilities were intensifying, but although it was known at the time that Hamas was amassing weapons from Iran and that rocket attacks from Gaza had dramatically increased, the article made no mention of these facts. On the contrary, the article glorified the smuggling tunnels as “a lifeline of the underground economy” and a symbol of “ingenuity and the dream of mobility.”

Indeed, the smuggling of weapons by Hamas received nothing more than two brief and superficial references – in an article of more than 4300 words focused on tunnels for smuggling – and those were made in the context of Israeli actions. The first reference was to Israeli demolitions of homes harboring tunnels “used for arms trafficking.” The second was a brief allusion to Hamas smuggling weapons, inserted almost as an afterthought following a laundry list of basic items snuck into Gaza, allegedly because Israel had given Palestinians no alternative:

After Israel introduced the blockade, smuggling became Gaza’s alternative. Through the tunnels under Rafah came everything from building materials and food to medicine and clothing, from fuel and computers to livestock and cars. Hamas smuggled in weapons. 

(Similarly, two photo captions referring to weapons also did so in the context of Israeli actions.)

There was no exploration or discussion of what weapons are smuggled, where they are smuggled from, and how they are smuggled through the tunnels, but the article did discuss at length Israel’s “blockade” and military operations as causes for smuggling, citing criticism of these actions without discussing their real purpose – to prevent rocket and mortar attacks against Israel’s civilian population. The only mention of  Israel’s reason for imposing an embargo and carrying out military strikes was buried in photo captions depicting the deleterious effects of Israeli actions on Palestinians.

Similarly, a reference in the article to “an attack” by Israeli naval commandos on “a Turkish flotilla off the Gaza coast” included nothing at all about the violent attacks by anti-Israel activists on board that precipitated the commando response, nor the reason why Israel does not allow the unfettered transfer goods into Gaza – again, to prevent the import of weapon components for assembling the rockets and mortars used against Israel.

A single mention of “rocket and mortar assaults on Israel by Gaza militants” under the auspices of Hamas came not as explanation for Israel’s embargo or military operations, but as description of what the article labelled Palestinian “resistance” in Gaza. By opting for the term preferred by Palestinian terrorists to justify their actions, author James Verini made it clear that the National Geographic article was not a piece of objective journalism.

The same type of partisan framing was evident elsewhere in the article, as well. For example, a description of Israel’s withdrawal from territory was manipulated to present Israel as “expansionist-minded”:

This is partly why expansionist-minded Israelis have focused more intensely on the West Bank than on Gaza; the last Israeli settlement in Gaza was vacated in 2005.

The photos by Paolo Pellegrin, too, included captions indicting Israeli actions. For example:

With many farms devastated by war, and with other land lying unproductive in areas restricted by Israel, livestock comes in by tunnel from Egypt.

The beach once bustled with fishing boats and cafés, but the Israeli naval blockade, sewage, and lack of resources for rebuilding have taken their toll.

A caption about Israel’s Operation Cast Lead cast the reason for it as mere Israeli spin, with the insinuation that the real reason was more sinister:

Gazans fix a donkey cart for collecting mountains of rubble left in 2008-09 by Operation Cast Lead, a military campaign in Gaza launched by Israel, officially in response to ongoing rocket fire from the strip. [emphasis added]

The entire article seemed to be aimed at glorifying Palestinian smugglers and criticizing Israel for creating the situation — and all this at a time when events were demonstrating a vindication of Israeli actions and implicating the actions of the smugglers. The editors prefaced the online edition by explaining that the article went to press just as hostilities were escalating. But even in the editor’s note, there was no acknowledgement of the smuggler’s role as enablers of the escalation in hostilities. The only reference the editors made to “smuggling tunnels” was that I
srael “extensively bombed the smuggling tunnels in Rafah.”

That the editors chose to run a partisan article indicting Israel and glorifying Palestinian smugglers while ignoring the malignant role played by smugglers in Iran/Hamas’ war against Israel is disturbing, indicating that accepted journalistic standards of accuracy and balance have no place at National Geographic.

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