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Official: Hamas willing to close down tunnels

May 21, 2013 6:24 P.M. (Updated: May 23, 2013 3:56 P.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- The Hamas government in Gaza is willing to close down all smuggling tunnels under the Egyptian border once a commercial crossing opens, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tuesday.

"We do not want the tunnels in the first place," said Ghazi Hamad. "They burden citizens and cause hundreds of fatalities, but they are essential because there is no alternative."

"The tunnels issue can be resolved by finding a solution that balances the security needs of Egypt and the humanitarian needs of the Gaza Strip through lawful commercial transactions monitored by both," he added in a statement.

The tunnel industry thrived under Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, providing a lifeline by smuggling goods into the besieged enclave. Egypt has cracked down on the network, flooding tunnels with sewage over fears that they are being used to smuggle weapons and fighters into the restive Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt's reopening of the Rafah crossing on its border with Gaza in May 2011 eased travel for Palestinians, many of whom had not been able to leave the enclave since 2007. However, commercial goods do not pass through the terminal, and Palestinians in Gaza still rely on the tunnels.

On Friday, Egyptian police closed the Rafah terminal in protest at the kidnapping by gunmen of seven Egyptian servicemen, several of whom worked at the crossing.

Hamad said the closure had added to the misery of Palestinians in Gaza, particularly students and sick people stranded at the border.

He added that Israel was the only beneficiary of strained relations between Egypt and Gaza, and that residents of Gaza suffered the most from the tension.

Egyptian authorities kept the Rafah crossing with Gaza closed for a fifth consecutive day on Tuesday, despite efforts by Palestinian officials to reopen the terminal.

A Gaza based center for human rights said that over 2,400 Palestiniansv were stranded at both sides of the crossing. The group urged Egyptian authorities to open the crossing and "exclude it from the internal affairs of both sides."

Passengers told Ma'an on Monday that they were making do with cardboard and newspapers to sleep at night, and to avoid the heat of the sun during the day. Some sleep in mosques, and very few can afford to pay for a hotel room in el-Arish.

Some passengers have managed to enter Gaza through smuggling tunnels.

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