In a bid to restore a commercial lifeline to the Hamas-ruled territory, hundreds of Palestinians came to the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt on Thursday to try to repair smuggling tunnels despite Israeli threats of new military action to prevent the resumption of such activities.
"Soon it will be operational, I will not bring drugs or weapons, I plan to use it to bring in what people need most -- food and fuel, and that is very profitable," tunnel-owner Mohammed told Reuters.
Hamas and other Palestinian factions use their own tunnels to smuggle in weapons but journalists do not have access to them and it was impossible to see whether they had resumed operation.
Israel has threatened new military action to prevent Hamas from replenishing the rocket arsenal it used to strike southern Israeli towns. Israeli troops pulled out of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, three days after separate ceasefires declared by Israel and Hamas went into effect.
"If we need to do additional military operations to stop smuggling, it will be done ... Israel reserves the right to act against smuggling, period," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio.
Repairs vs crackdown
An Egyptian security official told Reuters that security agencies were sweeping the Egyptian side of the frontier searching for tunnels.
The official, speaking on a customary condition of anonymity, said the search had included houses, buildings and farms along the border. He did not say whether any tunnels had been uncovered.
In the southern town of Rafah, hundreds of Palestinians who own a financial stake in tunnels checked on their status and began repair work under the cover of tents.
Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which is in place most of the time since June 2007, has turned tunnels into a big business.
"We have to make a living. We are still young and we have no other job except in the tunnels," said another 18-year-old tunnel owner, who gave his name only as Mohammed.
For the Palestinians, the tunnels are a means to circumvent the crippling blockade that Israel imposed on Gaza since Hamas took control of the enclave in June 2007 and which has significantly decreased the size of their economy and caused wide-scale unemployment, according to human rights observers.
Israel's intelligence chief Yuval Diskin said Sunday the Gaza offensive failed to wipe out the network of tunnels, which the Palestinians will now likely rebuild.
He feared the situation along the border, known as the Philadelphi route, would return to the pre-war status quo unless agreements with the U.S. and Egypt on greater surveillance are followed through.
"The operation did not deal an irreversible blow to the tunnels industry," said Diskin, the head of the Shin Beth internal security service.