GAZA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Palestinians came to the Gaza Strip’s border with Egypt on Thursday to try to repair smuggling tunnels bombed by Israel during a 22-day offensive and restore a commercial lifeline to the Hamas-ruled territory.
Residents along the border, where some Palestinians own tunnels and run them as businesses, said shipments of fuel and kerosene stoves had already been moving through the several dozen tunnels, out of hundreds, that were still functioning.
Tunnel-owner Mohammed said he and three partners had paid $40,000 to build their supply line.
“Soon it will be operational, I will not bring drugs or weapons, I plan to use it to bring in what people need most — food and fuel, and that is very profitable,” he said.
Hamas and other militant groups use their own tunnels to smuggle in weapons but journalists do not have access to them and it was impossible to see whether they had resumed operation.
Israel has threatened new military action to prevent Hamas from replenishing the rocket arsenal it used to strike southern Israeli towns. Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, three days after separate ceasefires declared by Israel and Hamas went into effect.
“If we need to do additional military operations to stop smuggling, it will be done ... Israel reserves the right to act against smuggling, period,” Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio.
An Egyptian security official told Reuters that security agencies were sweeping the Egyptian side of the frontier searching for tunnels.
The official, speaking on a customary condition of anonymity, said the search had included houses, buildings and farms along the border. He did not say whether any tunnels had been uncovered.
In the southern town of Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians who own a financial stake in tunnels checked on their status and began repair work under the cover of tents.
Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip — it has been allowing in humanitarian aid — has turned tunnels into a big business.
“We have to make a living. We are still young and we have no other job except in the tunnels,” said an 18-year-old tunnel owner, who gave his name only as Mohammed.
Using pulleys, workers pulled generators out of collapsed shafts covered by sand. Trucks carried away damaged caravans. Once fixed, they will be returned to digging sites and used by laborers taking a break.
Last week, the chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, said last week that Israeli aircraft had bombed “all of the known tunnels” during the Gaza assault.
In Brussels, Livni said after talks with European Union officials on Wednesday that she had won an “understanding” of the need to prevent the smuggling of arms into the Gaza Strip.
She said on Army Radio that Israel wanted the Europeans to assist in stopping ships carrying arms to the territory and in “tightening sanctions on Iran” as a weapons supplier to Hamas.
Earlier, EU ministers stressed that a reopening of border crossings was a key precondition to halting the flow of smuggled goods, including arms, into the Gaza Strip through the tunnels.
“Let them open the crossings and we will quit this work,” said tunnel owner Abu Al-Bara.#
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Mark John in Brussels and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia, Egypt; writing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; editing by Andrew Roche