People who dig and use cross-border tunnels in Egypt could face a maximum penalty of life in jail, state news agency MENA said on Sunday, citing amendments to the penal code targeting activity in the frontier area near the Gaza Strip.
Egypt recently declared Gaza rulers' Hamas a terrorist organization for its ties with the country's Muslim Brotherhood and has cracked down on tunnels in recent months.
Egypt declared a state of emergency in the border area last year after at least 33 security personnel were killed in attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, a remote but strategic region bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. There were several militant attacks in the Sinai on Sunday.
In recent months, Egyptian soldiers have destroyed virtually all smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. In October, they began razing parts of the Egyptian town of Rafah on the border with Gaza. Residents near the border said homes are still being dynamited or bulldozed at a steady pace, with the latest explosion heard Sunday afternoon.
The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, Gaza's main gateway to the world, mostly has been closed since October. This year, it was only open for two days, leaving thousands unable to get out of the territory, including Muslim pilgrims and students at foreign universities. The tunnel closures have put an end to the smuggling of cheap fuel and cement from Egypt, further hurting a crippled Gaza economy and driving up unemployment. Cigarette prices have tripled.
The amendments to the penal code were passed by presidential decree, MENA said. It also said people who used illegal crossings to transfer goods or equipment could also face a life sentence, as well as people with knowledge of them who failed to report them to the authorities.
It said the government had the right seize buildings on top of the tunnels or any of the tools used to make them.
Residents of Sinai, who complain they have long been neglected by the state, say they rely on smuggling trade through tunnels for their living. Egyptian authorities see the tunnels as a threat and regularly destroy them.
In November Egypt said it would deepen its buffer zone with Gaza after finding local tunnels, a move which stoked local resentment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report