Egyptian forces have flooded smuggling tunnels under the border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in a campaign to shut them down, Egyptian and Palestinian officials said.
The network of tunnels brings in an estimated 30 percent of all goods that reach the enclave and circumvents Israel’s blockade, implemented to keep arms out of Gaza.
Reuters reporters saw one tunnel being used to bring in cement and gravel suddenly fill with water on Sunday, sending workers rushing for safety. Locals said two other tunnels were likewise flooded, with Egyptians deliberately pumping in water.
“The Egyptians have opened the water to drown the tunnels,” said Abu Ghassan, who supervises the work of 30 men at one tunnel some 200 yards from the border fence.
An Egyptian security official in the Sinai told Reuters the campaign started five days ago.
Dozens of tunnels had been destroyed since last August following the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers in a terrorist attack near the Gaza fence.
Cairo said some of the gunmen had crossed into Egypt via the tunnels — a charge denied by Palestinians — and ordered an immediate crackdown.
The move surprised and angered Hamas, which had hoped for much better ties with Cairo following the election last year of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who is ideologically close to Hamas.
A Hamas official confirmed Egypt was again targeting the tunnels. He gave no further details and declined to speculate on the timing of the move, which started while Palestinian faction leaders met in Cairo to try to overcome deep divisions.
Hamas said on Monday the Egyptian-brokered talks, aimed at forging a unity government between Hamas and Fatah, had gone badly but had not collapsed.
At one stage an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 tunnels snaked their way under the desert fence, but the network has shrunk markedly since 2010, when Israel began easing restrictions on imports into the coastal enclave.