“That has not happened before,” said the spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
Zuhri said the Egyptian military’s plan to create a buffer zone “is designed to produce pressure and to surround Gaza,” with Egypt on one side and Israel on the other.
At first, the tunnels were a lifesaver for Gaza, after Egypt and Israel shut down legal crossings in the wake of Hamas’s victory in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. But now Israel has eased trade barriers, and many goods can enter Gaza legally, through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing.
But restrictions on imports, exports and the flow of people continue to hinder Gaza’s reconstruction, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. For example, Israeli officials restrict the shipment of building materials — cement, rebar, gravel, plumbing pipes and certain chemicals — because they say such items can be used to make bunkers and rockets. Those who can afford to have long turned to the tunnels to circumvent the restrictions.
Another challenge is that Gazans have come to rely on the cheap, state-subsidized fuel and gas that they smuggle from Egypt (Israeli gas is twice as expensive). The doubling of fuel prices would be extremely disruptive to the economy of Gaza, where a majority of the population is dependent on international assistance.
Among the families that own and operate the tunnels, several said the Egyptian military wants to hurt Gaza to undermine Hamas, because of the group’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. There has been no evidence of direct Hamas assistance to the Brotherhood in Egypt’s ongoing political crisis.
Israel’s government does not officially communicate with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization. Instead, Israel talks with the Egyptian military, intelligence service and Foreign Ministry as intermediaries.
Crackdown in the Sinai
The relationship between the Israeli and Egyptian armed forces has strengthened since the July 3 coup in Egypt, say Israeli military analysts, despite popular animosity toward Israel in Egypt.
The Egyptian government has cast its crackdown in the Sinai as part of its domestic battle against terrorists. A Sinai-based militant group on Sunday issued a communique on jihadist forums asserting responsibility for an assassination attempt against Egypt’s interior minister last week.
Speaking to Egyptian state television on Sunday, Hossam Sweilam, a retired general who is now an analyst, said security forces in the Sinai had sealed off three villages near the Israeli border where “terrorist” groups were clustered.
Egyptian security forces say they have killed at least nine militants and arrested hundreds since the launch of a military offensive in the peninsula over the weekend, according to state media.
But as has often been the case in Egypt’s most volatile — and least understood — province, it was impossible to confirm the state’s numbers about the military’s latest operation. In the past, claims by the state and local media about government operations in the Sinai have usually proved to be exaggerated.
The state-run al-Ahram newspaper called the latest offensive “the largest military operation to cleanse Sinai of terrorist elements and hubs.”
Two days before the operation was launched, the Egyptian army arrested Ahmed Abu Deraa, a prominent journalist working in the northern Sinai. The government has not provided a reason for detaining Abu Deraa, a resident of el-Arish who has worked extensively with Egyptian and foreign publications, including The Washington Post.
Since the coup that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s interim government has waged an extensive campaign against his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the Sinai, a rugged desert peninsula rife with weapons and anti-government sentiments, the backlash to the coup has been the fiercest. Militants have launched deadly attacks on military and police positions almost daily in the north. Tribal leaders sympathetic to the militants said the attacks reflected fears of a renewed state crackdown on the Bedouin and their smuggling ventures after a period of relative freedom in the anarchy that followed Egypt’s 2011 uprising.
Hauslohner reported from Cairo. Julie Tate in Washington and Lara El Gibaly in Cairo contributed to this report.