Egypt to sentence Gaza smugglers to life in prison

New amendment seeks to eliminate tunnels into Strip, could also apply to Egyptians who fail to report illicit passages

Illustrative: A Palestinian smuggler in a tunnel along the Gaza-Egypt border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Palestinian smuggler in a tunnel along the Gaza-Egypt border in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A new amendment to Egypt’s penal code would sentence offenders convicted of digging and using cross-border tunnels connecting the country to the Gaza Strip to terms of up to life in prison, the Egyptian news agency MENA reported Sunday.

The amendment, one of several passed by presidential decree, seeks to curtail the problem of tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, which have been used to smuggle contraband crucial for the Hamas rule in the Palestinian territory, as well as weapons and terror activists.

Under the new amendment, the Egyptian government has the authority to confiscate buildings above the tunnels or any equipment used in their construction.

Anyone with knowledge of cross-border tunnels who does not report them could be liable to the same life term as those who build and use them.

Egypt declared a state of emergency in the border region in 2014 after 33 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai that year.

Inhabitants of Sinai have expressed anger over the amendment, saying that their livelihood depends on the smuggling tunnels.

In recent months, Egyptian soldiers have destroyed virtually all smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

In October, they began razing parts of the Egyptian town of Rafah on the border with Gaza, and in early January, they began work on doubling the width of a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to prevent militants infiltrating from the enclave.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza’s main gateway to the world, has mostly been closed since October.

The tunnel closures have severely hampered the smuggling of cheap fuel and cement from Egypt, further hurting a crippled Gaza economy and driving up unemployment. Cigarette prices have tripled.

In February, an Egyptian court branded Gaza’s Hamas government — including its political wing — a terror group.

Since Egypt’s military ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the authorities have accused Hamas of aiding jihadists who have waged a string of deadly attacks on security forces in the Sinai Peninsula.

Meanwhile on Monday, at the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Israeli side of the border with Gaza, a bullet hit a truck that was carrying goods into the Strip, Ynet reported.

The bullet is believed to have been a stray round fired from Egyptian territory. The incident is under investigation.

The Kerem Shalom border crossing is one of three crossings from Israel into the Gaza Strip, mostly facilitating the transfer of humanitarian aid and medical equipment.

Stuart Winer and news agencies contributed to this report.

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