Egypt began work to seal off smuggling tunnels into the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, a security source said, amidst an uptick in public discussions by Israeli leaders over Egypt's willingness and capability of policing the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula.
The move came two days after gunmen shot dead 16 Egyptian border guards in an attack blamed partly on Palestinian Islamists.
A Reuters reporter in the border town of Rafah said heavy equipment was brought to the area near the tunnels, which are used to smuggle people to and from Gaza but also food and fuel that are a lifeline for the territory's population.
"The campaign aims at closing all the openings between Egypt and the Gaza Strip that are used in smuggling operations," said the security source.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday that Egypt has enough forces to deal with terrorism in Sinai, responding to suggestions that Israel will consider any Egyptian request to deploy additional military forces in the Sinai.
"There are enough forces in Sinai, it's now just a matter of making a decision," he said.
The IDF said the perpetrators of Sunday's attack were part of a global jihad terrorist infrastructure operating inside the Sinai that was made up mostly of local Beduin.
During the attack, some 35 armed men stormed an Egyptian military base, killing 16 policemen and soldiers. On Monday, Egypt branded the attackers “infidels” and vowed to launch a crackdown throughout the Sinai.
Until now, Israel has permitted the Egyptians to deploy about seven battalions in the Sinai, although under the peace treaty the peninsula is meant to remain demilitarized.
The conclusion Jerusalem hopes the Egyptians will draw is that they will act more forcefully to stamp out the global jihadi terrorism that is growing there, threatening both Israel and Egypt.
“Perhaps this will be a necessary wake-up call for the Egyptians to take matters in their hands in a more serious way,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.
The Hamas government had condemned the attack as an “awful crime” and promised to help Egypt find the culprits, but also denied Gaza militants were involved.
“We reject using the name of Gaza (in the context of the attack) without investigation and without finding out who is standing behind it,” said Hamas Deputy Prime Minister Mohammed Awad.
Meanwhile, protesters heckled Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil on Tuesday at the funeral of the 16 soldiers killed. The funeral was disrupted by hecklers who chanted against Egypt's new Islamist leaders, who may yet face a backlash against their plans to relax restrictions on Gaza border crossings.
"The Brotherhood and Hamas are one dirty hand," chanted some of the mourners.
According to Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Yom, vandals smashed Kandal's vehicle and pelted him with shoes.
Yaakov Katz and Herb Keinon contributed to this report.