Two Egyptian army tanks briefly crossed into Gaza on Thursday, passing a fence on the Egypt border into the strip of territory between Egypt and Gaza, but did not enter into Palestinian-controlled territory, eyewitnesses said.
The rare incursion came amid a punishing crackdown by the Egyptian army on Islamists in the Sinai and the destruction of a network of smuggling tunnels connecting the peninsula to Gaza.
It was the “first time Egyptian tanks were in the area, but they didn’t cross into the Palestinian side,” a witness told AFP. The armored vehicles “crossed the first Egyptian border fence along the corridor between Egypt and Gaza, and drove along the road running next to the cement wall” constructed by the Egyptians, the witness said.
Hamas, which controls Gaza, said no tanks had entered the strip.
A Gazan Interior Ministry spokesman said “security forces denied entry to any Egyptian tanks,” according to the news agency.
Earlier this week, the Egyptian military launched a major offensive against militants in the northern region of Sinai. Officials have described the offensive, which started on Saturday, as the biggest sweep of the area in recent years, aiming to weed out al-Qaida-inspired groups that have taken control of villages in northern Sinai.
Five days of military operations so far have left 29 Islamic militants dead and the military has boasted of capturing weapons caches, missile launchers, and dozens of vehicles and fuel storage sites. Some 30 militants were arrested during raids — mostly low-level operatives.
The army has also sought to clampdown on the smuggling tunnels running beneath the border town of Rafah, destroying several houses to create an empty buffer zone between Sinai and the Strip.
On Wednesday, a pair of suicide bombers rammed their explosives-laden cars into military targets along the Gaza border, killing at least nine soldiers and wounding 17 people, security officials and a military spokesman said.
One of the two bombings in the town of Rafah brought down a two-story building housing the local branch of military intelligence, while the other struck an army checkpoint.
The near-simultaneous attacks nudged the violence in the strategic Sinai Peninsula closer to a full-blown insurgency, compounding Egypt’s woes at a time when the country is struggling to regain political stability and economic viability more than two years since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.