The Egyptian military on Friday morning began pumping sea water into the underground cross-border tunnels dug between its Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip in what appears to be a renewed campaign to stamp out terror activity along the border.
Palestinian security officials told the German news agency DPA the operation was part of an effort to stop cross-border smuggling by Islamist militants to and from the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
According to the report, large pipes extending from the Mediterranean Sea flooded the Sinai-Gaza border area with sea water, enabling Egyptian officials to destroy the tunnels without having to know their exact locations.
Officials announced last month that the area would be flooded and would eventually be converted into 18 fish farms along the 14-kilometer border with Gaza, making the digging of new underground tunnels impossible.
Since the 2007, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has been subject to a blockade imposed by Egypt and Israel, designed in part to prevent the terror group importing weaponry. Egypt has also been concerned by cooperation between Hamas and Sinai-based terror groups, and the passage of Hamas terrorists via the tunnels to training camps in Iran and elsewhere in the region.
The Sinai Peninsula is a bastion of the jihadist group Sinai Province, formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis. The organization has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, which has captured swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
Following a spate of attacks on Egypt’s security forces in the last year, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has taken an increasingly hard line against the growing presence of insurgents in the Egyptian territory, and established a buffer zone along its Gaza border.
An Islamist terror group committed to destroying Israel, Hamas has accused Sissi of collaborating with Israel.
Up until a number of years ago, Egypt tolerated a smuggling industry, allowing hundreds of tunnels to bring in goods like cigarettes and spare motorbike parts, as well as weapons, into Gaza. These tunnels were a lifeline for Hamas, which collected millions of dollars in taxes and revenues from the smuggled goods. They continued to thrive after longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011 and the Islamist Mohammed Morsi won the country’s first free presidential election.
But the violence has continued. In July, Islamic State-linked militants struck Egyptian army outposts in a coordinated wave of suicide bombings and battles. And last month, the Egyptian branch of the Islamic State group beheaded a young Croatian there who was working for a French company.
On Sunday, Egyptian security forces killed 12 people, including a number of Mexican tourists, after mistakenly targeting their vehicles while chasing jihadists in the Sinai.
AP contributed to this report.