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Hamas shuts tunnels to keep kidnappers from sneaking in

Shuttering smuggling routes seen as routine move meant to distance Gaza’s rulers from Sinai incident

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

Palestinian Hamas security forces patrol the border area in Rafah between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian Hamas security forces patrol the border area in Rafah between the Gaza Strip and Egypt on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas placed its forces along the border with Egypt on high alert Tuesday, in a bid to prevent the smuggling of seven abducted Egyptian soldiers into Gaza.

A source in the Hamas border authority told the Palestinian daily al-Quds that dozens of National Security soldiers were deployed along the border, preventing the operation of all smuggling tunnels leading into the Gaza Strip, with the exception of tunnels used exclusively for the transfer of gasoline and building materials from Egypt.

Hamas began its crackdown on the tunnels on May 16, when seven Egyptian soldiers and policemen were abducted by local militants in the north Sinai city of el-Arish.

Samir Zaqout, a field-work coordinator at Gaza’s human rights organization al-Mizan, told The Times of Israel that the shutting of the smuggling tunnels was a routine move by Hamas in reaction to security incidents on the Egyptian side of the border.

“The Hamas government initiates such moves to show that it is not involved,” Zaqout said.

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One Egyptian militant was killed and three injured on Tuesday evening when attack helicopters bombarded the Egyptian border villages of al-Barath, Salah a-Din and al-Gora, the Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported. Egyptian security also confiscated eight cars belonging to militants.

Meanwhile, the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt remained shut on Tuesday for the fifth consecutive day, when Egyptian security forces refused to allow Palestinian passengers traveling to and from Gaza to cross through in protest against the kidnapping.

Zaqout said that five of the seven kidnapped soldiers worked at the crossing, and noted that the move was initiated by their colleagues to pressure Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi into taking decisive action.

“In the past, Egyptian soldiers were kidnapped in Sinai and until now nothing has been done to release them,” Zaqout claimed. “It is a form of pressure on the Egyptian government.”

The al-Mizan field-worker estimated that, since the border’s closing last week, 2,500 Palestinians are stranded on the Egyptian side of the border, unable to return to their homes in Gaza, and that some 5,000 passengers are waiting to leave Gaza in the opposite direction

Egyptian forces guarding the border crossing say they are refusing to allow traffic through until their fellow soldiers are released.

But Abdul Mun’im Abdul Maqsoud, a lawyer working for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, told the Hamas daily al-Resalah that Morsi would likely issue an order to open the crossing “very soon.”  Maqsoud called the closure “completely unjustified,” considering that Palestinians were not believed to be involved in the abduction.

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