Tags: Gaza | Hamas | tunnel | smuggle

Hamas Closes Smuggling Tunnels to Egypt

Wednesday, 14 Apr 2010 11:37 AM

JERUSALEM - Gaza's Hamas rulers have ordered residents to shut smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt indefinitely, cutting off the underground weapons flow as well the economic lifeline for 1.5 million Palestinians in the impoverished territory, residents and tunnel operators said Wednesday.

Hamas forces moved into the border area late Tuesday and ordered tunnel operators to cease operations until further notice. The operators were allowed to retrieve food and other perishable goods, but otherwise barred from the area on Wednesday.

"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 Hamas security official confirmed the closure. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Hamas has long controlled the tunnel industry and it was not clear why it was suddenly ordering them shut, given their importance to the group's arms supply and Gaza's economy. Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade of Gaza since Hamas seized power nearly three years ago, and the hundreds of tunnels in the Rafah area are the main entry point for many basic items, as well as weapons.

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 and by a Palestinian terror organization.

On Tuesday, the National Security Council's Counter Terrorism Bureau (CTB) warned that a Palestinian terror cell was en-route to the Sinai to abduct Israelis vacationing along the coast.

CTB officials said that the intelligence was concrete and that the cell, was working for Hamas and planned to transfer the kidnapped Israeli to the Gaza Strip. They said that due to the large number of Israelis believed to be in Sinai until Tuesday it was possible that a kidnapping had occurred and they had yet to learn of it.

Hamas’s decision to close to the tunnels and Egypt’s subsequent closure of the Rafah Crossing is 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 (UAVs) over the Philadelphi Corridor to keep an eye on the tunnels and see if an abducted Israeli will be smuggled into Gaza.

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 six kilometers (four miles) 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.

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JERUSALEM - Gaza's Hamas rulers have ordered residents to shut smuggling tunnels along the border with Egypt indefinitely, cutting off the underground weapons flow as well the economic lifeline for 1.5 million Palestinians in the impoverished territory, residents and tunnel operators said Wednesd
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2010-37-14
Wednesday, 14 Apr 2010 11:37 AM
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