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Two Palestinians dead in Egyptian security operation against cross-border tunnel

In this Monday, Sept. 30, 2013 file photo, a Palestinian worker rests inside a smuggling tunnel in Rafah, on the border between Egypt and the southern Gaza Strip.
AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File
One police officer, one civilian dead in what was likely to be a smuggling tunnel.

Two Palestinians, one civilian and one police officer, died during an Egyptian operation on a cross-border tunnel with Gaza on Sunday night. 

Gaza's interior minister confirmed the fatalities on Monday morning, adding that the bodies had been removed following "hours of intense effort." 

Three others were rescued in critical condition and taken to a Gaza hospital, although Palestinian media reported that at least nine had been injured in the operation. 

According to the official statement, the two died of asphyxiation, with several Palestinian news outlets alleging this was due to the Egyptian army flooding the tunnel with toxic gases.

The ministry spokesperson, Iyad al-Bazm, said that the police officer, Maj. Abdul Hamid Atallah al-Aker, 39, was on an inspection mission of the tunnel. The other victim was named as Subhi Saqr Abu Shark, 28.

The Egyptian army did not comment on the operation.

The interior ministry identified the purpose of the tunnel, which is located in the Jararat neighborhood of border town Rafah, close to the border crossing with Egypt, as 'commercial.'

There currently are only two points of entry for goods into Gaza, each under tight Israeli and Egyptian control respectively.

AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra

-- Smuggling, fighting, fleeing -- 

Numerous tunnels are estimated to be operational in the area, with most likely to be for smuggling goods into the coastal enclave.

In 2015, Egypt went on a large operation to destroy the constructions, routing a pipe from the Mediterranean sea to the border area in order to flood the tunnels.

This has not put a stop to the practice, with credible reports saying that Egypt's security forces ignore the tunnels in exchange for bribes.

Smuggling is not the only cause of concern for Egypt, however.

Gaza borders Egypt's tumultuous Sinai region, which is the theater of heated fighting between Egyptian security forces and Islamic militants. 

According to official figures, which cannot be independently confirmed, at least 350 suspected militants and 30 Egyptian soldiers died in counter-insurgency operations in 2018.

In 2016, the Egyptian military destroyed a 3-kilometer long truck-sized tunnel that it said was being used to smuggle weapons in and out of Gaza by Islamic militants.

MOHAMED EL-SHAHED (AFP/File)

Egypt in recent years has built a buffer zone along the border with Gaza to stem the flow of militants and enacted a crackdown on extremism. In 2018, the Egyptian army said it destroyed 37 cross-border tunnels.

Egyptian security forces also detained nearly 20,000 for illegally crossing into Egypt through the area in 2018 - although there were no further details as to the purpose of these unrecorded crossings.

On Saturday, two Palestinians died in a boat that capsized off the coast of Algeria. Most of those on board were reported to be Palestinians from Gaza. 

Crossing the Egyptian border can be done semi-legally, but it is an expensive process for those that are not in immediate need of medical attention.

People wanting to travel outside the strip pay upwards of $1,500 in 'security coordination' payments to Egyptian officials, according to migrants talking to magazine Al Monitor.

More than half of young people in Gaza say they would like to leave their country, according to a July 2018 survey conducted by Gaza's Al-Aqsa university.

A majority of them says 'continued Palestinian division, the spread of unemployment and the lack of basic services' are their main reasons for wanting to leave.

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