Gaza City, Gaza Strip (Associated Press)-The ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza said on Friday that it had found the bodies of three men in a smuggling tunnel along the Egyptian border.
The statement did not give the cause of death. But a day ago, the organization accused Egypt of injecting toxic gas into the tunnel. Just as the Egyptians are trying to bring about a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, such accusations may exacerbate tensions with Egypt. The Egyptian side did not immediately comment.
Contact with the smuggler was lost late Thursday. Hamas and other radical factions later stated that the workers had died when the toxic gas was injected into the “trade tunnel”, calling it “a murder for which the Egyptian authorities were solely responsible.”
After Hamas seized power from hostile Palestinian forces in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a severe blockade on Gaza. Israel stated that the blockade is necessary to prevent militant Islamic groups from smuggling weapons into the territory. Human rights groups stated that the blockade is equivalent to collective punishment for more than 2 million Palestinian residents in Gaza.
Over the years, Palestinians have used the vast network of tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle everything from food and fuel to household appliances and motorcycles. Israel and Egypt stated that these tunnels were also used for arms smuggling.
In 2013, Egypt began to crack down on the tunnel trade, demolishing tunnels and houses in the town of Rafah that crossed the border in order to create a buffer zone on the side of the border. The authorities said that residents will be compensated.
Since Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war in May, Egypt has been leading the mediation effort, which is the fourth war since Hamas seized power. Hamas has demanded relaxation of the blockade in exchange for calm, and has organized violent demonstrations along the border with Israel in recent weeks.
Egypt often acts as a mediator between Israel and Hamas. In recent days, Egypt’s efforts to achieve a broader and long-term truce have shown signs of progress. Israel eased its blockade this week, allowing construction materials needed for post-war repairs to enter the territory. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett plans to visit Egypt this month.
It is not clear how Hamas’ allegations will affect ceasefire efforts.