Egyptian bill bans tunnel digging to Gaza

Legislation intended to crack down on conduit into Hamas-controlled Strip, but some say it does not go far enough

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

Working in a Palestinian smuggling tunnel connecting Gaza and Egypt in 2013. (photo credit: Hatem Moussa/AP)
Working in a Palestinian smuggling tunnel connecting Gaza and Egypt in 2013. (photo credit: Hatem Moussa/AP)

The Egyptian government has drafted a bill outlawing the digging of tunnels from Egypt, in a further bid to clamp down on Hamas-backed smuggling activity between the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai.

According to the Palestinian Ma’an news agency, the Egyptian government has transferred the bill to the legislation department of the Council of State — part of Egypt’s judicial system — which in turn decided to add it to the country’s penal code.

The law sets a prison sentence for anyone “digging, preparing, using, or crossing through tunnels connecting Egypt to any foreign country or entity or foreign nationals with the intent of bringing in or taking out people, goods or anything of value.”

Egypt has increasingly been cracking down on Hamas smuggling tunnels — formerly the primary source of income for the Islamist government — since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi last July.

In March, the Egyptian military declared it had destroyed 1,370 tunnels, but an unknown number of tunnels are still being used to transport food, commodities and arms in and out of the Strip. A report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from September 2013 claimed that less than 10 tunnels are still operative, as compared to some 300 before June 2013.

Samir Ghattas, head of Egypt’s Middle East Forum for Strategic Studies, told Al-Mihwar radio station on Sunday that the new law will deter “terrorist groups” from digging tunnels, but it is not enough. He suggested evacuating civilians straddling both sides of the border fence and resettling them in homes at least three kilometers (1.9 miles) away from the frontier.

“These [tunnels] constitute a permanent threat to Egypt’s national security,” Ghattas said. “We must say, though, that the tunnel phenomenon has been reduced to a great extent. There used to be more than 1,200 tunnels dug by Hamas and other terrorist organizations between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.”

On March 4, an Egyptian court designated Hamas as a terror group, ordering the movement’s offices in the country be shut down.

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