Security alert shuts Gaza tunnels

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The Independent Online

Hamas said yesterday it had temporarily shut down smuggling tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, cutting off the embattled strip's one faltering economic lifeline to the outside world.

The move comes as Israel's security officials urged its nationals holidaying in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt to leave after receiving a "concrete" threat that militants could try to kidnap an Israeli citizen there and smuggle them across the border to Gaza.

The tunnels serve as vital conduits for non-essential supplies coming into Gaza since Israel installed a crippling military blockade of the tiny coastal enclave in 2007 after Hamas seized control. Hamas declined to give a reason for the decision that came into force on Tuesday evening, but it appeared to be connected with the Sinai alert.

Sources in Gaza, cited by the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, said Hamas closed the tunnels at the request of Egyptian security officials in light of the terror threat to Israelis. Hamas also fears that Israel could bomb the tunnels, the sources added. Issa al-Nashar, a senior Hamas official in Rafah, denied the closures were linked to the kidnapping threat, saying that they were "an internal issue". He did not elaborate.

Hamas allowed the tunnels to reopen briefly yesterday to allow smugglers in to retrieve goods. Abu Yousef, one of the many tunnel operators, said the tunnels otherwise remained closed. Anyone who flouted the order faced a stiff fine.

More than a year after a crushing Israeli offensive against Gaza that killed up to 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants are still struggling to rebuild their shattered homes and infrastructure. Israel has barred the import of construction materials, allowing only essential items into Gaza.

Smuggling has flourished under the blockade. The tunnel trade provides a crucial financial prop to Hamas, which levies a tax on the operators, and all sorts of goods have made their way into Gaza through the tunnels, including motorbikes, fuel and livestock. Weapons are also smuggled in, and Israel regularly mounts attacks on the tunnels.

Egypt, which has a complicated relationship with Hamas, has bolstered Israeli efforts by constructing an underground steel wall along its border with Gaza that it says will cut off the tunnels.

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