Hamas closes its smuggling tunnels
Move follows Israeli warnings of kidnap plot
RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Hamas temporarily closed Gaza’s smuggling tunnels in response to an Israeli warning of a plot to kidnap Israelis vacationing in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and drag them into Gaza through the underground passageways, officials said yesterday.
The unprecedented step briefly cut off a key economic lifeline to the blockaded Palestinian territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas since its violent takeover in 2007.
A senior Hamas government official said the cross-border tunnels were closed at the request of Egypt, which relayed the Israeli concerns. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss contacts with Egypt.
Another Hamas official said the decision was also partly prompted by concerns that Israel could bomb the tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. Hamas, increasingly isolated, may also have wanted to avoid further friction with Israel and Egypt.
The order was issued just hours after Israel told its citizens to leave Sinai, saying it had concrete evidence that militants were trying to abduct Israelis and possibly take them to Gaza. The tunnels would be the only route to drag captives into Gaza.
Hamas security forces told tunnel workers late Tuesday to leave the smuggling areas on the Gaza-Egypt border, smugglers and security officials said.
By late yesterday afternoon, smuggling had resumed, but it was not clear whether the tunnels had reopened for good.
A Hamas security official on the border said that the reprieve was temporary to allow owners to retrieve shipments stranded underground, but that smugglers were warned not to sneak in any people. The senior Hamas government official said smuggling was back to normal because Hamas felt there was no longer a compelling reason to keep the tunnels closed.
The tunnels under the 9-mile border are key to the survival of the Hamas government, which has been squeezed by a border blockade by Israel and Egypt.
Hundreds of tunnels have been dug with Hamas support since the blockade was first imposed in 2006, after Gaza militants captured an Israeli soldier. The closure tightened a year later after Hamas seized Gaza from its Palestinian rivals in Fatah. Israel, however, allows in basic foods and other supplies. The tunnels are a conduit for commercial goods and people, as well as cash and weapons for Hamas.
Most of the tunnels are privately run, but Hamas retains overall control and has a heavy security presence in the area.