RAFAH, Gaza Strip – Hamas has begun work on a buffer zone along Gaza's border with Egypt, the Islamic militant group said Wednesday, as part of an effort to assure Cairo that it's serious about preventing the cross-border flow of weapons and militants.
Hamas officials hope the creation of the buffer will lead to an easing of the crippling decade-long blockade of the coastal territory.
Earlier this month, Egypt invited a high-ranking Hamas delegation for rare negotiations in Cairo. The Hamas-run Interior Ministry said the creation of the 12-kilometer-long (7.5-mile), 100-meter-wide (330-foot) corridor was a result of these talks. It said construction will take about a month. There are no homes in the sandy area.
Egypt has long accused Hamas of fueling unrest in North Sinai, where its army has been battling increasing Islamic insurgency since the toppling of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after a year in office in 2013. Morsi was a Hamas patron.
Both Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza after Hamas ousted forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 in bloody street battles. Palestinians have been split between the rival groups since then with Hamas ruling Gaza and Abbas governing parts of the West Bank.
After repeated failed reconciliation attempts, Abbas has tried to squeeze Hamas financially in recent months, hoping to force it to cede control.
On Wednesday, bulldozers worked on the land, leveling and clearing it from bushes — flattening the ground and makeshift structures that had protected entry points for underground smuggling tunnels. Hamas relied on the tunnels to circumvent the blockade before Egypt created its own buffer zone in 2014.
"This measure is being taken in accordance with our brothers in Egypt to clear the border," said Tawfiq Abu Naim, Gaza's security chief.
He said Hamas is asking Egypt for materials to complete the project including "barbed wire, cameras, lighting, and heavy equipment to demolish the tunnels."
Hamas deployed troops to the area and built watchtowers there in recent months.
Egypt wants to make sure Islamic State militants won't be able to escape into Gaza or get weapons from there as its military intensifies the fight against them in the Sinai.
Members of IS as well as Salafists and other groups have become a common foe for both Hamas and Egypt. In Gaza, they fire rockets into Israel in an attempt to try and drag Israel into retaliation by striking Hamas sites.
Egypt ostensibly has offered Hamas an easing of the blockade. In the first signs of that change, Egyptian diesel tankers bound for Gaza's only power plant were allowed into the Gaza Strip last week.
The diesel shipments come as Abbas has stepped up pressure on Hamas. Abbas has asked Israel to reduce electricity supplies to Gaza and reinstated heavy taxes on fuel for the power plant.