Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing between the Sinai and the Gaza Strip “indefinitely,” an Egyptian security official told AFP on Thursday.
The move came after a day of violent clashes between Egyptian security forces and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is linked to Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
A Hamas official told the Palestinian Ma’an news agency that Egypt cited “bad security conditions in North Sinai district,” for the closure.
The move could mark a dramatic escalation in the closures faced by Gaza’s residents. Rafah is the Gaza Strip’s only exit point not controlled by Israel, which has imposed a blockade on its own border with Gaza in an effort to curtail arms smuggling by the territory’s Hamas rulers.
Egyptian authorities have closed the border crossing intermittently since the military deposed president Mohammed Morsi on July 3. It was closed last week over the Eid al-Fitr holiday, and the terminal’s operating hours have been sharply curtailed since July, when they were shortened from nine hours a day to just four. According to Egyptian officials, the restrictions led to a drop in the number of people crossing each day from about 1,200 to just 150.
Egyptian forces have also worked to shut down the large network of smuggling tunnels between the Strip and Sinai, leading to severe shortages inside the Palestinian territory, according to Gazans and UN officials.
Thousands of workers in Gaza have also been laid off over the past month due to the closures, while some of the tens of thousands of Palestinians studying and working in Egypt are keeping a low profile for fear being targeted in an anti-Hamas backlash. Hamas is an affiliate and ally of the Muslim Brotherhood and has been vocal in its criticism of Morsi’s overthrow.
The latest closure, which is not time-limited, has left hundreds of Palestinians stranded on either side of the crossing, according to AFP.
The Egyptian move comes as part of the military’s efforts to curtail violence and terror attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, which spiked in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, with authorities in Cairo saying that many of the fighters in the peninsula came from Gaza.
The Sinai violence has spilled over into Israel. Last Thursday, Israel briefly shut down the main airport in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, which sits close to the Egyptian border, out of fear of an attack from the Sinai. A rocket attack this week targeted the city, but was intercepted by the IDF’s Iron Dome battery stationed near the city.
In Egypt, Morsi’s overthrow has led to weeks of tensions and street protests that erupted this week into violent clashes between pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and the military that have seen over 500 Egyptians killed since Wednesday.
Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.