Egypt is installing a series of metal sheets some 60 feet deep along its border with Gaza in an attempt to block tunnels that serve as a key conduit to get weapons into the Palestinian territory, border guards and area residents said Thursday.
The work poses a risk to Egypt's relations with Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2007, and could undermine its role as a regional mediator. Egypt is already under fire from Arab and Muslim groups for cooperating with Israel in its two-year blockade of the impoverished territory, with 1.4 million residents.
The border project appears to be one of a series of measures Egypt has taken, some of them in cooperation with the U.S., to crack down on smuggling since the end of Israel's war on Hamas last winter. The tunnels were a main target of Israel's offensive.
"We in Hamas can't believe that Egypt would put barriers between us," Hamas lawmaker Yehiye Moussa told The Associated Press. "We know that Egypt is under American and international pressure, but we hope that this is not true. We demand that Egypt open its border."
But the tunnels also create an issue for Egypt, allowing terrorists to slip into the country from Gaza and attempt attacks.
Residents along the border said in recent weeks they have seen Egyptian construction crews clearing a corridor along the frontier, then drilling deep holes. They said the workers then filled the trenches with sand. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
A resident of Rafah, a city divided by the Egypt-Gaza border, said Egyptian crews near his home were clearing a dirt corridor about 90 yards from the border over the past 20 days. The man who identified himself only by his first name, Ashraf, for fear of harassment, said they were drilling holes about 20 yards deep and filling them with sand.
A Gaza security official said he has seen drilling machines operating on the other side of the border, equipped with an attachment to hoist metal. He said the workers are installing metal into the trenches at night.
The official and a Hamas border guard said the Egyptians have been digging for the past 17 days in the area where the borders of Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet. They said they dig during the day and put metal into the ground at night. Both men requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the subject.
Government officials did not return calls seeking comment.
On Thursday, heavy drilling machinery could be seen operating on the Egyptian side of the border. Nonetheless, on the Gaza side tunnels were active with Palestinian smugglers lowering themselves into the deep shafts.
Egypt has been wary of cooperating to shut the tunnels, which are also used for smuggling everything from food to medicine and construction material. Without tunnel smuggling, Gaza's already shaky economy _ facing a crippling blockade since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007 _ would likely collapse.
Egypt's gamble is substantial. It could undermine its central role in mediating Mideast conflicts, including the bitter rivalry between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian territories. Egypt also has been trying to arrange a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel that could ultimately lead to an easing of the Gaza blockade.
Egyptian and Israeli officials said the project along the border was in cooperation with the U.S. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue.
A U.S. Embassy official in Cairo denied there was American involvement in any barrier project on the border.
At the conclusion of Israel's offensive last January to halt rocket fire from Gaza, the U.S. agreed to provide Israel, Egypt and other countries in the region with military and intelligence assistance, including detection and surveillance equipment. It also agreed to provide logistical help and training.
In February, U.S. Army engineers set up ground-penetrating radar in the region to detect smuggling tunnels.
Israel has long criticized Egypt for not doing enough to halt the smuggling. Recently, Egypt increased funds specifically for improving security in the Sinai Peninsula, where the border is located.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Wednesday quoted Egyptian sources as saying the construction has begun on a massive iron underground barrier, which cannot be cut or burned through. It will be about six miles long, and 60 to 90 feet deep, the report said.
Associated Press Writer Dalia Nammari contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.