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Egypt 'flooded Gaza tunnels at Israel's request'

Tunnels have been used to transport people and goods in and out of Gaza [AFP]

Date of publication: 8 February, 2016

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Cross-border tunnels which provided a lifeline - albeit illicit - to Gazans under siege were flooded by Egyptian troops at Israel's request, Israel's energy minister Yuval Steinitz has revealed.
An Israeli minister has claimed that Egypt flooded tunnels on its border with the besieged Gaza Strip at Tel Aviv's request, although a spokeswoman later said the remarks were misinterpreted.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, a member of the ruling Likud party, said that Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi "did flood a large part of the tunnels between Gaza and Sinai", calling it a "good solution".

The Palestinian coastal enclave's southern border with Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is significantly shorter than its eastern border with Israel.

"Let's say that if Sisi did do it, it's to a large extent due to requests and pressure from us," he reportedly said on Saturday.

Sources told The New Arab that Egypt's assistant to the foreign minister, Hisham Saif al-Din, contacted Israel's ambassador to Cairo, Haim Koren, on Sunday to object to Steinitz's statements.

In late 2014, Egypt began setting up a buffer zone on its border with Gaza, and destroyed hundreds of tunnels it says were used for smuggling weapons and other items.

In September 2015, Egypt carried out digging work that Palestinians say led to the flooding of the last remaining tunnels there.

An Israeli blockade severely restricts the movement of people and goods into and out of the territory, and Egypt's sole border with Gaza has also remained largely closed since 2013.

Hamas has accused Egypt of adding to the siege of Gaza by destroying the tunnels which have long been used to transport people and much-needed goods in and out of the enclave of some 1.8 million inhabitants.

Let's say that if Sisi did do it, it's to a large extent due to requests and pressure from us.
- Yuval Steinitz

Israeli officials say Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, is rebuilding tunnels that could be used for attacks against Israel.

On 29 January, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said the group was ready for a new confrontation with Israel, thanks in part to the reconstruction of tunnels.

A spokeswoman for Steinitz said in a statement to AFP that "the impression" his remarks created, "as though the Egyptian campaign against the tunnels is a result of an Israeli request, is wrong and does not reflect reality".

On Saturday, Steinitz said that "security coordination between Israel and Egypt is good and stronger than ever before".

Egypt is reluctant to be seen in the Arab world as acting against the Palestinians, and Steinitz reportedly angered Israeli defence officials with his remarks.

Since 2013, militant groups have stepped up their attacks against Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai Peninsula.

Hamas lost a major ally when Egypt's then army chief Sisi toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, and has had strained relations with Sisi ever since.

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