Rafah, Gaza *****: The new government of Egypt is squeezing the door to Gaza shut, reducing trade and travel between the two entities to a trickle, and knocking the Islamist movement Hamas, which rules over the coastal enclave, back on its heels.
In the last week, the Egyptian military has launched what appears to be an unprecedented campaign designed to shut down, once and for all, the illegal but long permitted tunnels that provide a vital economic lifeline to the Gaza ***** and fill the government coffers with tax revenues for Hamas, which is closely allied with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, now ousted from power by military-led coup.
We have seen crackdowns before. They close tunnels. They open tunnels. They destroy. We build. But this time feels different.
The Egyptian army has begun bulldozing and blowing up dozens of houses on the Egyptian side of the border, vowing to create a "buffer zone" hundreds of yards wide between the two sides, which would replicate the barren no-man's land that separates Gaza from Israel.
A Hamas policeman stands guard along the border with Egypt and the Palestinian territory.
A Hamas policeman stands guard along the border with Egypt and the Palestinian territory. Photo: AFP
Plans announced by the Egyptian military suggest that after the houses are destroyed, the army will dig a canal and fill a moat with water to further defeat the smugglers, who have burrowed hundreds of tunnels, complete with lights and trolley lines, since Hamas took over Gaza in 2006.
Hossam al-Meneai, a filmmaker who splits his time between the North Sinai capital of al-Arish and Cairo, reported that "people are being arrested in large numbers".
"There are people being forcefully evacuated from their homes within the vicinity of Rafah – there are these 500 metres they are trying to move people away from, because they are destroying the tunnels," Meneai said. "This has been happening for the past few days."
Palestinians are seen near a smuggling tunnel area along the border with the Egypt as seen from Rafah, southern Gaza *****.
Palestinians are seen near a smuggling tunnel area along the border with the Egypt as seen from Rafah, southern Gaza *****. Photo: AFP
But Meneai also cast doubt on the military's claims about the goals of its operation. Over the past few months, he said, the state often appeared to be manufacturing some of the story.
A Gaza businessman who owns and operates several tunnels with the permission of Hamas, and who has relatives and trading partners on both sides of the border, said the tunnels are so lucrative – to Hamas, smugglers, traders and the Egyptian bureaucrats and military officers who take their share – that he could not imagine them closed for long.
The businessman, who requested anonymity because of the illegality of his trade, said: "We have seen crackdowns before. They close tunnels. They open tunnels. They destroy. We build. But this time feels different."
Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Hamas in Gaza, said: "There are no tunnels, none, in operation at the current time. That has not happened before."
Mr Zuhri said the Egyptian military has told the Hamas government that its plan is to destroy the tunnels, bulldoze houses and create a buffer zone. "It is designed to produce pressure and stress, and to surround Gaza," with Egypt on one side and Israel on the other, he said.
Among the families that own and operate the tunnels, they believe the Egyptian military wants to hurt Gaza in order to undermine Hamas, which then be less able to assist their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
The government of Israel does not formally communicate with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation. Instead, Israel talks with the Egyptian military and foreign ministry as intermediaries.
The relationship between the Israeli and Egyptian armed forces has strengthened since the coup, according to Israeli military analysts.
Israeli politicians and military commanders have praised the Egyptian army for taking seriously the rise of Islamic militancy and lawlessness in the Sinai – and the threat it poses to Israel.
The two armies appeared to have collaborated recently with one side or the other, firing a deadly missile strike against a Sinai-based militant organisation with alleged links to al-Qaeda as the group was preparing to launch rockets into Israel.
The militants said an Israeli drone attacked them. The Egyptian military denied this, but did not provide an explanation of who killed the four jihadis.
"Egyptian pressure on Hamas has meant it will not dare even think about firing rockets at Israel or allowing smaller Palestinian factions to do so," Amos Harel, top military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote Sunday. "The Egyptian generals knew how to show their gratitude and Israel is pleased with operations against terror in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza."
Egypt's navy also has seized and fired at Palestinian fishing vessels that have strayed into Egyptian waters from Gaza.
Speaking to Egyptian state on Sunday, Hossam Sweilam, a retired general and security analyst, said that security forces in Sinai had sealed off three villages where "terrorist" groups were clustered.
"The terrorists are from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood," as well as "other groups", he said.
Egyptian security forces say they have killed at least nine militants and arrested hundreds of others since the launch of a military offensive in the peninsula over the weekend.
Security forces said Sunday that tens of thousands of forces have pushed into Sinai and its villages near Egypt's volatile border with Israel and the Gaza *****, seizing vast stockpiles of weapons, including shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, known to the US intelligence community as MANPADS.
Sinai Bedouins said in earlier interviews that they had smuggled the MANPADS out of Libya and into Sinai during the turmoil of Libya's and Egypt's 2011 revolutions. Most, they said, entered Gaza.
But as has always been the case in Egypt's most volatile – and least understood – province, it was impossible to confirm the state's claims about the military's latest operation there. In the past, both the state and local media's claims about government operations in the Sinai have usually proven to be exaggerated.
The state's al-Ahram newspaper called the operation Sunday "the largest military operation to cleanse Sinai of terrorist elements and hubs".
Two days before its launch, the military arrested Ahmed Abu Draa, the most prominent local journalist working in North Sinai. The government has not provided an official reason for detaining Abu Draa, a resident of al-Arish, who has worked extensively with both Egyptian and foreign publications.
By Saturday, security forces had shut down the area's phone networks, making it impossible to reach people living in the border zone, where the state says it has focused its operations.
Since the July 3 coup that ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's new military-backed government has waged an extensive crackdown against Morsi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Gaza's Hamas.
In Sinai, a rugged desert peninsula already rife with weapons and anti-government sentiment, the backlash to the coup has been the fiercest. Militants have launched deadly attacks against military and police positions almost daily in North Sinai, near the border. Tribal leaders sympathetic to the military said that attacks reflected fears of a renewed state crackdown on the Bedouins and their smuggling ventures in the anarchy that prevailed after Egypt's 2011 uprising, after years of relative freedom.
The Bedouins of Sinai have long complained of neglect and discrimination by the state, and many have turned to smuggling into Gaza and Israel over the past 10 years to make ends meet. Israel's blockade on Gaza after Hamas's 2006 electoral win only exacerbated the demand and the profits.
Under the blockade, which was also enforced by Egypt above ground, Gazans have depended on smuggled Egyptian commodities, particularly fuel and building supplies, to keep the *****'s infrastructure running. Hamas has relied heavily on its control over tunnel imports for government revenue.
But Egypt's coup has allowed for a reshuffling of government priorities and a renewal of co-operation with Israel, which suffered under Morsi's rule as his government tightened its bond with Hamas and allowed militancy to flourish uncontested in the Sinai.
Egyptian media quickly tied the Brotherhood's pro-Morsi protests following the coup to Gaza's Hamas. Government officials accused the Palestinian militant group of plotting with the Brotherhood and the United States to destroy Egypt.