Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip ordered the closure of some of the territory’s largest underground smuggling tunnels Wednesday, hours after Israeli officials said they had evidence militants were planning to kidnap an Israeli tourist on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and transport him into Gaza.
Israel suggested its citizen's leave Egypt immediately.
Egypt has long feared militants in the Gaza Strip, the restive Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas, could use the territory as a base to carry out terrorist attacks in the Sinai. Though still small, militant groups have been established in the strip in recent years that share the ideology and global goals of Al Qaeda, rather than that of the nationalist Hamas. Last August, Hamas security forces killed 20 members of an Al Qaeda inspired group in Rafah, on the Egyptian border.
Hamas’ decision to seal Gaza’s underground passageways – which have brought food and medicine and weapons to Gaza during an Israeli and Egypt-imposed blockade – was an apparent move to allay Egyptian concerns.
Israeli counter-terrorism officials did not say publicly whether the militants allegedly planning to carry out an attack had ties to Gaza or were based in Egypt. Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, attractive for its inexpensive, sunny resort spots, hosts a high number of Israeli and foreign tourists each year.
Hamas: Gaza will not be a terrorist "refuge"
“Hamas does not want Gaza to be used as a refuge for anyone who wants to carry out attacks in Egypt, or a place to hide an Israeli captured in Egypt,” said Abu Khalil, a commander of Hamas’ armed wing based at the border and who said he received clear instructions from his superiors early Wednesday morning to close down the tunnels.
“This would destroy our relations with the Egyptians,” he continued. “Hamas does not oppose kidnapping Israelis, but not from Egypt.”
Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 in a series of bloody street battles with its Western-backed Fatah rivals. Israel and Egypt both tightened their borders with the territory in a bid to put pressure on the Islamist government. They allow passage of a limited amount of humanitarian aid and a trickle of passenger travel.
Difficult to control extremists
Hamas has tried to rein in rocket attacks out of Gaza since it fought a bruising three-week war with Israel over a year ago. But smaller, more extreme factions have broken Hamas’ rocket cease-fire and vowed to fight Israel.
In an interview with the Monitor last month, a commander from the militant Islamist group Jaysh al-Umma (Army of the Nation), said his armed faction has considered carrying out attacks in Egypt, and that foreign fighters have crossed the border to train with his group.
But Hamas interior ministry spokesman Ehab Ghussein says his government is firm in its policy of prohibiting foreign fighters from entering Gaza. He also played down reports that tunnels were closed to hinder the implementation of a Sinai-based attack.
“Hamas will not allow people to come into Gaza from outside using the tunnels,” Mr. Ghussein says. “Whoever wants to kidnap Israelis outside of Gaza should not come to Gaza. This is not helpful.”
By Wednesday night Gaza time, Palestinian residents near the border said some goods were moving through the tunnels again, but that many of them remained closed.
Safwat Kahlout contributed to this report from Rafah.