Officials: Egypt closes Gaza border amid tensions with Hamas

·3 min read

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt closed its main border crossing point with the Gaza Strip on Monday amid tensions with the territory’s militant Hamas rulers, officials said.

It was the first time the Rafah crossing was shuttered during a workday since early this year. Egyptian authorities had kept it open during the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May.

According to the Egyptian officials, the closure was connected to Cairo's efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. It was not immediately clear how long the closure would last, the officials said.

One of the officials said the move was meant to pressure Hamas because of the “differences” between Cairo and and the militant group over lack of progress in both the Egyptian-led, indirect talks with Israel, and also efforts to reconcile Palestinian factions.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.

Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said Hamas had been notified of the closure. He said they were in contact with Egyptian authorities to reopen Rafah.

“The closure of the crossing exacerbates the humanitarian crisis inside the Gaza Strip," he told The Associated Press. “We hope the crossing will return to work as soon as possible.”

Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliamentary elections. The blockade restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, with Rafah serving as the primary exit point for Gazans to travel abroad when it is open.

Hamas has grown increasingly angry in recent weeks after Israel tightened the blockade in the wake of the May war. Israel has demanded the return of the remains of two dead soldiers, as well as two Israeli civilians believed to be alive and being held by Hamas, as a condition for the cease-fire. In the meantime, it has held up the deliveries of much-needed reconstruction materials.

Activists in the Gaza Strip on Monday launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel, setting off at least three fires across the border, Israel's national fire service said.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the balloon launches, but in a statement on Sunday, Hamas and other militant groups pledged “to continue our popular activities without hesitation or retreat.”

The statement followed a a violent Hamas-organized protest along the Israeli border Saturday in which a Palestinian activist shot an Israeli sniper in the head at point-blank range. The soldier remained in critical condition Monday.

At least 24 Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire at Saturday's protest, two critically.

Egypt has been a key mediator between Israel and Hamas over the years. Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel paid a rare visit to Israel last week to discuss the cease-fire deal with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. He invited Bennett to visit Egypt.

A day after the visit, Israel announced that it had reached a deal with Gulf country Qatar to resume aid payments to thousands of impoverished Gazan families. The payments, a key source of stability in hard-hit Gaza, had been suspended following the war.

Since May, Egypt has allowed aid and construction convoys into Gaza to help rebuild houses and infrastructure destroyed during the fighting.

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Associated Press journalists Wafaa Shurafa in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Jack Jeffery in Ramallah, West Bank contributed to this report.

Samy Magdy, The Associated Press

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