Gaza recovers three corpses from smuggling tunnels



GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – The ruling Hamas militant group in Gaza said on Friday it had recovered the bodies of three men from a smuggling tunnel along the Egyptian border.

The statement gave no cause of death. But a day earlier, the group accused Egypt of pumping poison gas through the tunnel. Such accusations could escalate tensions with Egypt just as the Egyptians try to negotiate a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel. There was no immediate Egyptian comment.

Contact was lost with the smugglers on Thursday evening. Hamas and other militant factions later said workers died when poisonous gas was pumped into a “trade tunnel”, calling it “a murder for which the Egyptian authorities bear full responsibility.”

Israel and Egypt imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza after Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Israel says blockade is necessary to prevent the Islamic militant group from smuggling weapons into the territory . Rights groups say the blockade amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s more than 2 million Palestinian residents.

For years, Palestinians have used a vast network of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border to smuggle everything from food and fuel to household appliances and motorcycles. Israel and Egypt said the tunnels were also used for arms smuggling.

In 2013, Egypt began cracking down on the tunnel trade, demolishing tunnels as well as houses in the town of Rafah, which straddles the border, to create a buffer zone on its side of the border. Authorities said residents would be compensated.

Egypt has been leading mediation efforts since Israel and Hamas waged an 11-day war in May, their fourth since Hamas took power. Hamas has demanded the easing of the blockade in exchange for calm and in recent weeks has staged violent protests along the border with Israel.

Egypt often mediates between Israel and Hamas, and its efforts to secure a broader, long-term truce have shown signs of progress in recent days. Israel this week lifted the blockade to allow building materials needed for post-war repairs to enter the territory. And Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is due to visit Egypt this month.

It was not immediately clear what effect the Hamas accusations would have on the ceasefire efforts.

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