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Egypt’s military shuts tunnels that aid Gaza

Hamas has used passages to ferry items to territory

A Palestinian used a tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas smuggled in items Israel won’t permit.

IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/Reuters

A Palestinian used a tunnel beneath the Gaza-Egypt border. Hamas smuggled in items Israel won’t permit.

RAFAH, Gaza Strip — Emad the smuggler was covered in dust, watching buckets of cement and gravel emerge on a crude trolley from the bowels of his tunnel beneath the Egyptian border.

He is one of the few still doing this kind of work.

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In the weeks since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in a coup and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood were declared enemies of the state, Egypt’s military has shut down most of the tunnels that serve as a lifeline for Hamas, the Islamist political and militant group that rules the Gaza Strip.

‘‘The army now runs Egypt and the army hates Hamas,’’ said Emad, who declined to give his full name because the tunnels are, at least technically, illegal. ‘‘They could care less what happens to Gaza.’’

Under Morsi, hundreds of tunnels were allowed to flourish. Now there are a few dozen. So fuel prices in Gaza are soaring. Orders for steel and cement go unfilled. Projects to repave roads, build public housing and repair infrastructure in the enclave have stopped.

Egypt’s new military-led interim government is hostile to Hamas, which was born of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s. Hamas was ecstatic when Morsi was elected Egypt’s president. But with its close ally now detained at an undisclosed location, the movement is finding itself more isolated than it has been in years.

With the closing of the smuggling tunnels, long lines of idled cars await the sporadic opening of gas stations. Electricity, always dodgy here, especially in the heat of summer, has become even more unreliable because of the lack of fuel to run the generators. And forget about speciality items. Only a few Mercedes-Benz sedans are moving through the underground corridor these days.

Many of the tunnels were dug after Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007 and Israel and Egypt responded by closing borders. Over time, Israel and Egypt again opened crossings to the territory.

Though it is now possible to move goods into Gaza through the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing, Israel restricts certain items it says can be diverted to terrorist activities — concrete and irrigation pipes, which Israel said could be used to make bunkers and rockets.

With the opening of Kerem Shalom, which is operating at half capacity, Gazans could get most of their goods via Israel. But instead, they use the tunnels for fuel, cooking oil, and building materials — and some luxury items — that are cheaper in Egypt because they are subsidized by the government or banned to import by the Israelis.

Hamas and other militant factions use tunnels to smuggle arms and personnel. Exactly why the Egyptian military closed so many tunnels, but not all, is unclear. Gazans assume they are being punished.

Egyptian authorities have been investigating allegations that Morsi conspired with Hamas during the country’s 2011 uprising against former leader Hosni Mubarak.

In Cairo, state and private media accuse Gaza’s leadership of stoking terrorism in the Sinai peninsula, where this month 25 police recruits were kidnapped by alleged militants and fatally shot on the side of the road.

Hamas said it had nothing to do with the attack on Egyptians in Sinai. ‘‘Egyptian security is very important to us,’’ said Ahmad Yosef, ex-adviser to Hamas boss Ismail Haniya. ‘‘We are in contact daily with the Egyptian intelligence services.’’

Yosef said Hamas has asked the Egyptian military to provide proof that Hamas has supplied weapons or fighters to the Sinai, ‘‘and they cannot.’’

Last month, Hamas shut down two news bureaus in Gaza, because Hamas said they presented ‘‘false news’’ about the Islamist government’s role in Egypt. Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel and Palestinian Ma’an News Agency remained closed. Directors of the news outlets deny the charges.

Recently, a group calling itself ‘‘Tamarod Gaza’’ released a video calling for Nov. 11 protests against the Hamas government. ‘‘Tamarod,’’ meaning ‘‘rebellion’’ or ‘‘mutiny’’ in Arabic, is the same word used by the Egyptian youth movement that helped to topple Morsi.

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