Egyptian soldiers use bulldozers in the southern Gaza Strip in search of tunnels on the border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip. (Said Khatin/AFP/Getty Images)

The ­Egyptian military has launched what appears to be a campaign to shut down, once and for all, the illegal but long-permitted tunnels that provide a vital economic lifeline to the Gaza Strip and supply tax revenue to the Islamist movement Hamas.

The operation seems to be part of an effort to cripple Hamas, which rules the coastal enclave bordered by Egypt and Israel. The group is an offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose ­standard-bearer held that country’s presidency before being ousted from power this summer.

The Israeli government enforces strict rules on people entering and leaving Gaza via a lone pedestrian crossing at Erez, the checkpoint on the border with Israel. Israel prevents Gaza from operating an airport or seaport, and it regulates trade in and out of the territory, limiting some crucial items, such as building materials.

Now, with Egypt’s military-backed interim government shutting down the tunnels and largely closing its own pedestrian crossing, at Rafah, Gaza is increasingly shut off from the world.

The Egyptian army has begun bulldozing and blowing up houses on its side of the border near Rafah, destroying more than a dozen. Egyptian security officials this month leaked military plans to create a “buffer zone” hundreds of yards wide between the two sides, replicating the barren no-man’s-land that Israel enforces inside Gaza to keep Palestinians from approaching the Israeli border. 

Hamas officials also said that the Egyptian military plans to dig a moat in the area and fill it with water to further thwart the smugglers who have burrowed hundreds of tunnels, complete with lights and trolley lines, since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.

‘This time feels different’

“We have not seen a period with this level of disruption, for this long a time, with this number of tunnels sealed or destroyed, and now coupled with the statements of the Egyptian government — this is new,” said Sari Bashi, executive director of the Israeli human rights group Gisha, which monitors trade and traffic to and from Gaza.

Before, when Egyptian officials threatened to limit tunnel traffic, Bashi said, they would always include an exemption for humanitarian or civilian needs and emphasize that they wanted to crack down on weapons or fighters. “Now their statements talk about buffer zones,” she said.

Hossam al-Meneai, a filmmaker who splits his time between Cairo and el-Arish, the capital of the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula, reported that “people are being arrested in large numbers” in areas near the tunnels.

“There are people being forcefully evacuated from their homes within the vicinity of Rafah — there is a 500-meter zone that they are trying to move people out of in order to destroy the tunnels,” he said.

A Gazan who owns and operates several tunnels and has relatives and trading partners on both sides of the border said the tunnels are so lucrative — to Hamas, smugglers and traders, as well as the Egyptian bureaucrats and military officers who take their share — that he could not imagine them closed for long. 

The businessman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid government scrutiny, said, “We have seen crackdowns before. They close tunnels, they open tunnels. They destroy, we build. But this time feels different.”

According to a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, “There are no tunnels, none, in operation at the current time.”

“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.