Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday said the security measures taken by his country along the border with Gaza were not aimed at “harming” Palestinians.
“The measures taken by Egypt to secure its eastern borders are in full coordination with the Palestinian Authority and cannot have the aim of harming our Palestinian brothers in the Gaza Strip,” Sisi was quoted as saying in a statement sent by his office
“The measures seek to protect the Egyptian borders and maintain Egyptian and Palestinian national security,” it added.
The Egyptian leader reportedly made the comments during a meeting with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in New York, where they are attending the United Nations General Assembly. Egypt began creating a wide buffer zone along the Gaza border in late 2014 in a bid to destroy the hundreds of smuggling tunnels Cairo says are used by Palestinian activists to deliver weapons to Islamic militant who are battling Egyptian forces in the Sinai peninsula.
In recent weeks, Egypt has also been carrying out digging work in the area that Palestinians believe is intended to flood the last remaining tunnels between Gaza and the Sinai. The work has been criticized by Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip, with exiled chief Ismail Haniyeh on Thursday accusing Egypt of further besieging the enclave, which is already under an Israeli blockade.
Cairo also came under fire from Human Rights Watch this week, which said Egypt’s military had “violated international law” through mass home demolitions in the buffer zone and accused the government of failing to provide adequately for about 3,200 families after their evictions. The watchdog also said Egypt had not “provided proof that insurgents receive military support from Gaza”.
Since the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, jihadist groups have stepped up their attacks against Egyptian security forces in the northern Sinai peninsula. Hamas lost a major ally with Morsi’s overthrow and has had strained relations with Sisi, who overthrew Morsi while army chief. Tunnels have long been used to transport people and goods in and out of Gaza.
Egypt controls the only crossing into Gaza not overseen by Israel. Last week, Egyptian army border guards discovered and destroyed 12 “new” tunnels running under the Gaza-Egypt border in the northern Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian security sources told Ma’an at the time.
While, last month, Egyptian authorities announced plans to fill a kilometer-long trench along the Gazan border with seawater to be used for fish farming,aimed at preventing the construction of smuggling tunnels between the border. Tunnels have served as a lifeline to the outside world for Gaza’s 1.8 million inhabitants since Israel began its military blockade in 2007.
While the tunnels are used by Hamas as a source of tax revenue and inflow of weapons, they also supply highly-demanded necessities for Gazans including food, medicine, as well as infrastructure materials including concrete and fuel. Egypt has sought to destroy the tunnels as part of an ongoing security campaign in the northern Sinai against anti-regime militants launching attacks on Egyptian police and military personnel.
Egypt accuses Hamas of supporting the insurgents. Hamas, which denies Egyptian accusations, has suffered poor relations with the Egyptian government ever since the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood, with whom they were closely allied, was thrown out of power in July 2013.
The Egyptian army has destroyed hundreds of smuggling tunnels since then, though new ones continue to be found. MAAN