World News

Egypt, Hamas exchange fire on Gaza frontier, 1 dead

GAZA (Reuters) - An Egyptian soldier was killed and four Palestinians were wounded in a gunbattle on Wednesday during a protest against an anti-smuggling wall Cairo is building on the Gaza border.

The violence was the most serious between Egyptian and Hamas forces since Cairo began constructing the underground steel barrier a month ago. The project could choke off the movement of weapons and goods through tunnels into the Gaza Strip.

Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade of the territory, which is ruled by Hamas Islamists who oppose international efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Weapons and a wide range of commercial products are smuggled into the territory through a network of tunnels crossing the border with Egypt. Cairo has come under U.S. and Israeli pressure to stop the trafficking.

On the Egyptian side of the frontier, security officials said a 21-year-old soldier was killed by gunfire from the Palestinian part of the divided town of Rafah.

Witnesses on the Gaza side of the border said members of Hamas’s police force fired at the Egyptians.

Hundreds of Palestinians had turned out to protest against the wall. Witnesses said dozens of demonstrators threw rocks at Egyptian soldiers, who then opened fire, wounding four Palestinians.

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An Israeli military officer, who is briefed on Gaza intelligence, told Reuters last week the Egyptian wall could significantly stem Palestinian arms smuggling into the territory once it is completed in several months.

Cairo has played down the scope of the dig on the 14km (eight mile) border. Hamas says the “wall of death” could choke off tunnels providing a commercial lifeline for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian officials have said steel tubes were being placed at several points along the frontier to form a barrier, but have not elaborated on its purpose.

Tunnel-builders say some 3,000 underground passages were operational before Israel launched a three-week Gaza offensive a year ago, but only 150 were still functional following the conflict and subsequent Israeli air raids.

Israel imposed the blockade in 2006 after one of its soldiers was seized by militants who tunneled under the Israel-Gaza border. It was tightened after Hamas wrested control of the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement.

The blockade has drawn international condemnation over hardships caused to Palestinians in the impoverished coastal enclave and its impact on efforts to rebuild homes and infrastructure after the Gaza war.

Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Yusri Mohammed in Egypt, Writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Editing by Jon Boyle