By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) - Egyptian security forces have destroyed some 20 houses along the border with Gaza, local residents said on Tuesday, in what the Palestinian enclave's Islamist Hamas rulers fear is an effort to build a buffer zone to isolate them.
Egypt's military stepped up a campaign against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula, bordering Gaza, after deposing Islamist president Mohamed Mursi following mass unrest, and has accused Gaza Palestinians of supporting the militants.
The crackdown, before and after Mursi's ouster, has included closures of tunnels from Gaza the military believes have been used to move weapons, gunmen and goods across the border.
Now, residents on the Egyptian side of the border say, the armed forces have also begun to tear down homes, apparently suspecting they are being used to hide tunnel entrances or provide cover for other militant activity.
The Egyptian crackdown is reminiscent of the demolitions that Israel, citing security concerns, used to carry out on the Palestinian side of the Egyptian border before it pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
"We reject any concept of building a buffer zone. Buffer zones should not be built between brothers and between friendly countries," said Ehab al-Ghsain, spokesman for the Hamas government in Gaza.
An Egyptian army source confirmed the military had intensified its campaign to close tunnels but said he knew of no instructions to put a buffer zone in place.
Residents on the Egyptian side of the border said that at least 20 homes had been torn down.
One resident, who asked not to be identified, told Reuters by telephone that he counted 17 destroyed houses, all located within 700 meters (yards) of the frontier.
"The Egyptian army orders people to evacuate their houses and then they knock them down, leaving residents to look for a place to stay, with relatives or friends," he said.
On the Hamas-controlled side of the border, calls can be heard from loudspeakers on mosques across the frontier urging residents to confront the Egyptian military during demolitions.
Egyptian army officials have accused Hamas, which felt strengthened by Islamist rule in Cairo, of interfering in Egyptian affairs and suggested that Palestinians might be helping Islamist militants in Sinai.
This has been denied by Hamas, which began as a 1980s spin-off from Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, won a Palestinian election in 2006 and seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.
Hamas said Egyptian authorities were continuing to limit to 250 the number of Palestinians allowed to cross daily into Egypt from Gaza. Some 1,200 people a day used to pass through the Rafah border terminal before Mursi's removal in July.
"Gaza will never be a danger to Egypt and our battle and struggle will always remain against the Israeli occupation in defense of Palestine and the dignity of Arab and Muslim nation," Hamas said in a statement on Tuesday.
Tunnel owners have said that only a few of the 1,200 passages running under the border are still operational.
Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza and the tightening of Israel's blockade, the tunnels have been a crucial conduit for consumer goods into the enclave. Hamas Economy Minister Ala al-Rafati said their closure had cost the economy of the widely impoverished Gaza Strip at least $230 million in July alone.
In 2010, Israel began easing its economic restrictions and allowing more products into Gaza through its border crossings, though Palestinians say limitations should be lifted completely.
(Additional reporting by Egypt newsroom, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)