Source AP ©

Israel destroys seven smuggling tunnels during military operation in southern Gaza

According military officials, Israeli forces operating in the Gaza Strip this week uncovered and destroyed seven tunnels used by Palestinian militants to smuggle arms and people.

Troops located the tunnels linking the coastal territory with Egypt during a military operation in southern Gaza, the military said in a statement Thursday.

The tunnels were used by the Islamic group Hamas, which rules Gaza, to smuggle militants "to and from Egypt," and served as part of the organization's "weapons supply mechanism," the statement said.

Smugglers operate dozens of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border in and around the town of Rafah, which stretches on both sides of the frontier. The tunnels are used to run everything from contraband cigarettes to crates of ammunition and wanted militants in and out of the besieged territory.

The subterranean passages were originally dug to avoid the official border crossing at Rafah, controlled by Israel, Egypt and by European monitors. But their importance has grown since June, when Hamas took control of Gaza and Israel imposed a blockade on the territory, closing Rafah and all of Gaza's other border crossings to everything but humanitarian aid.

The tunnels vary in length from 100 meters (yards) to a kilometer (half-mile). To avoid detection by Israeli and Egyptian forces, smugglers conceal entrance and exit points under the floor tiles of kitchens, inside bedroom closets and in abandoned buildings.

Israel has complained that Egypt does not do enough to stop the flow of arms into Gaza. Egypt has rejected the allegations, but recently said it would make a greater effort to crack down on trafficking.

In October, Egyptian police announced that they captured three members of an al-Qaida-inspired group in a cross-border tunnel, one of them wearing a bomb belt meant for use in a suicide attack in Israel. Egypt also said it uncovered two tunnels in October, seizing a cache of weapons and ammunition, along with five kilograms of heroin.

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