CAIRO (AP) – Egypt has been digging trenches and installing metal sheets underground along its border with Gaza in an apparent attempt to curb smuggling into the Palestinian territory through tunnels, Gaza border guards and area residents said Thursday.
The project appears to be one of a series of measures Egypt has taken, some of them in cooperation with the U.S., to crack down on smuggling since the end of Israel’s war on Hamas-ruled Gaza last winter. The tunnels are a key route for funneling weapons and explosives to the Palestinian militant group Hamas and were a main target of Israel’s offensive.
Residents along the border said they have seen Egyptian construction crews clearing a corridor along the frontier, then drilling holes about 20 meters (yards) deep for the past weeks. They said the workers then filled the trenches with sand. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
A Hamas border guard and a Gaza official said the Egyptians have been digging for the past 17 days in the area where the borders of Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet. They said they dig during the day, and put metal into the ground at night. Egyptian security officials confirmed a project was under way to curb smuggling.
A senior Egyptian security official would not confirm nor deny the reports and government officials did not return calls seeking comment. Egypt has been harshly criticized by Arab and Muslim groups for cooperating with Israel in blockading the 1.4 million residents of the impoverished Gaza Strip for more than two years.
“We in Hamas can’t believe that Egypt would put barriers between us,” Hamas lawmaker Yehiye Moussa told The Associated Press. “This is hard to believe,” he added. “We know that Egypt is under American and international pressure, but we hope that this is not true. We demand that Egypt open its border.”
Egyptian security officials and Israeli officials said the project along the border was in cooperation with the U.S. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue. But an American embassy official in Cairo denied the U.S. involvement in any wall or barrier project on the border. “We are aware of and appreciate the efforts being made by the government of Egypt to combat smuggling efforts on the Gaza-Egypt border. Any questions on specific projects on that border should be directed to the government of Egypt which has sole responsibility for securing the Egyptian side of the border,” the official said on condition of
anonymity because of U.S. government restrictions. Israel’s three-week Gaza offensive, aimed at halting rocket fire from the territory, ended in January. At the conclusion of the war, Israel and the U.S. administration signed an agreement that said the U.S. would provide military and intelligence assets, including detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations in the region. There were some signs that Egypt, Israel and the United States stepped up security cooperation to combat cross-border smuggling. In February, U.S. Army engineers have arrived at the frontier to set up ground-penetrating radar to detect smuggling tunnels.
Israel has long criticized Egypt for not doing enough to halt smuggling of weapons, people and money into Gaza. But the tunnels are also a lifeline for the seaside territory to get around a crippling economic blockade by Israel and Egypt for the past two years.
Egypt has been wary of closely cooperating to shut the tunnels, which are also used for smuggling everything from food to medicine and construction material. Without tunnel smuggling, Gaza’s already shaky economy, facing a crippling blockade since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007, would likely collapse. That would increase pressure on Egypt and Israel to ease the blockade.
Gazans infuriated and frustrated by the blockade blasted holes in a concrete and metal border wall in 2008 and tens of thousands of Palestinians streamed across the border into Egypt unchecked for about a week.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Egyptian sources Wednesday as saying the construction of a massive iron underground wall has begun. It will be about 10 kilometers long (miles), and 20 to 30 meters (yards) deep.
A resident of Rafah, the city divided in half by the Egypt-Gaza border, said Egyptian crews near his home were clearing a dirt corridor about 90 meters (yards) from the border over the past 20 days.
The man who identified himself only by his first name, Ashraf, for fear of harassment, said they were drilling holes about 20 meters, and filling them with sand. The Gaza security official said he has seen drilling machines operating on the other side of the border, equipped with an attachment to hoist metal. He said the workers are installing metal into the trenches at night.