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Hamas temporarily shuts Gaza tunnels

Hamas temporarily closes Gaza's smuggling tunnels in response to an Israeli warning of a plot to kidnap Israelis vacationing in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 Wednesday.

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 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 came 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.

Smuggling resumes
Tunnel workers were told late Tuesday by Hamas security forces to leave the smuggling areas on the Gaza-Egypt border, smugglers and security officials said.

By late Wednesday afternoon, smuggling had resumed, but it was not clear whether the tunnels had reopened for good.

A Hamas security official on the border said 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 nine-mile (15-kilometer) 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, led by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas. 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 smuggling area. Some of the tunnels are believed to be under direct Hamas control.

The tunnels run side by side under the border, with just a few yards (meters) between each, their entrances covered by tents. On normal business days, the humming of generators, which power lighting, pulleys and other equipment, mixes with the sound of trucks rumbling along the unpaved paths.

Israel and the United States have repeatedly urged Egypt to do more to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza, and Israel has repeatedly bombed the tunnels from the air, particularly during its military offensive against Gaza more than a year ago to stop daily rocket attacks.

Some tunnels already idle
Issa Nashar, the Hamas mayor of the Gaza border town of Rafah, said about 30 percent of the more than 400 tunnels were already idle before Tuesday's closure because of an intensifying crackdown by Egypt in recent weeks. He said Egyptian security forces have been stopping more shipments headed for Gaza and have arrested Egyptian partners of the Gaza smugglers.

Several months ago, Egypt began building an underground steel wall to block the tunnels. Nashar said the barrier now runs along a little less than half of the border, though not in the central area with the highest concentration of tunnels.

Israel's anti-terror office issued the abduction warning late Tuesday, urging Israelis vacationing in Sinai to return home and citing concrete "evidence of an expected terrorist attempt to kidnap Israelis in Sinai" and possibly take them to Gaza.

Israel's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it was not aware of anyone missing in Sinai, but the warning remained in effect.

By Wednesday evening, about 220 Israelis remained in Sinai, out of about 650 present there Tuesday, police said.

The Gaza-Egypt border sits at the northeastern corner of the Sinai desert.

The Red Sea resort beaches of Sinai, a popular vacation spot for Israelis and other foreign tourists, are on the southeast coast roughly 200 miles (300 kilometers) from Rafah and near a border crossing between Israel and Sinai.