Gaza tunnel destroyed 311.
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Gaza’s Hamas rulers temporarily ordered residents to shut smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt on Wednesday, cutting off the economic lifeline for the 1.4 million Palestinians in the Strip, residents and tunnel operators said on Wednesday.
Hamas forces moved into the border area late on Tuesday and ordered tunnel operators to cease operation. The operators were allowed to retrieve food and other perishable goods, but were otherwise barred from the area on Wednesday.
The closure of the tunnels was viewed in Israel as connected to the reports a day earlier of a possible kidnapping of an Israeli citizen in the Sinai Peninsula by a Palestinian terror organization.
“This is the first time this has happened,” said Jasser Younes, a 25-year-old tunnel worker who helps smuggle cement into Gaza. Two other tunnel operators said Hamas security forces warned people they would be punished if they defied the order. They declined to be identified for fear of punishment.
A senior Hamas government official said the cross-border tunnels were closed at the request of Egypt. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss contacts with Egypt.
Another Hamas official said the decision was also partly prompted by concerns that Israel could bomb the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.
By late Wednesday afternoon, smuggling had resumed, but it was not clear whether the tunnels had reopened for good.
A Hamas security official on the border said the reprieve was temporary to allow owners to retrieve shipments stranded underground, but that smugglers were warned not to sneak in any people. The senior Hamas government official said smuggling was back to normal because Hamas felt there was no longer a compelling reason to keep the tunnels closed.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a tough blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power in June 2007, and the hundreds of tunnels in the Rafah area are the main entry point for many basic items, as well as weapons.
Hamas’s decision to close to the tunnels and Egypt’s subsequent closure of the Rafah crossing was likely a sign that the two are taking the Israeli warning seriously and do not want to be affiliated with the cell nor allow it to cross into the Gaza Strip with a kidnapped Israeli in tow.
Palestinians have claimed that since Tuesday, Israel has been flying unmanned aerial vehicles over the Philadelphi Corridor to keep an eye on the tunnels and see if an abducted Israeli is smuggled into Gaza.
The Gaza-Egypt border sits at the northeastern tip of Sinai. The Red Sea resort beaches of Sinai, a popular vacation spot for Israelis and other foreign tourists, are on the southeast coast roughly 300 km. from Rafah and near a border crossing between Israel and Sinai.
Hamas has been holding Gilad Schalit captive for nearly four years, and it has repeatedly threatened to carry out further kidnappings.
Wednesday’s crackdown comes at a difficult time for the tunnel industry.
Rafah officials say that Egypt has stepped up a crackdown on smuggling in recent months, setting up checkpoints in the border area and confiscating contraband. Egypt is also building an underground steel wall to block the tunnels.
Rafah officials say about 6 km. of the wall – covering roughly half of the border area – is already complete.
The officials say the Egyptian measures have led to a sharp slowdown in tunnel traffic in recent months, pinching the local economy.