During a tour Monday, rows of tents were visible along most of the border. A stretch of sandy soil, about 200 yards wide, runs between the tents and the first Egyptian demarcation, in some places a low stone wall and in others a line of rusty steel containers.
The tunnels run under the border and emerge about a half-mile away on the Egyptian side, the exits often disguised by homes.
Construction of the anti-tunnel wall is believed to have started sometime in November, though Egyptian officials initially would not discuss the project and still decline to provide details. In recent days, as opposition to the wall mounted, Egypt’s leaders have struck a defiant tone.
“Egyptian borders are sacred, and no Egyptian allows any violations in one way or another,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said last week.
It’s impossible to gauge how much of the wall already has been completed, but smugglers watch the construction with growing concern. Tunnel operators standing near Monday’s work site said they have not been directly affected so far but fear the day when they have to stop working.
Profits from the tunnels are still considerable. A 36-year-old former taxi driver said he makes $100 a day, a large sum for Gaza, by pumping fuel from Egypt through his tunnel.
Amid the uncertainty, rumors are running wild. Many here believe Egypt plans to flood the area and already are scheming to make their tunnels waterproof. Mr. Nashar, the Rafah mayor, said enterprising smugglers have managed to cut pieces off the underground wall.
Others have raised the possibility that the smugglers simply might dig deeper, going below the underground wall.
Two years ago, Hamas militants cut down a metal border wall that had been erected by Israel, enabling tens of thousands of Gazans to pour into Egypt until the border was resealed.
During Israel’s 38-year military control of Gaza, Israel tried in vain to halt the smuggling, including tearing down houses along the border and blowing up tunnels.
In Israel’s three-week military offensive against Hamas last winter, warplanes repeatedly bombed the border area, causing some damage but failing to close down the tunnels.
The wall construction marks the highest profile attempt by Egypt to halt the smuggling and seems to have struck a nerve, judging by Hamas’ angry protests.
Hamas officials portrayed Egypt as doing the bidding of Israel and the United States and even hinted at another border breach.
“I’m telling you, the people, they want to live and they want something to eat. They may do everything they can,” Ehab Ghussein, a spokesman for Gaza’s Interior Ministry, said Monday.
“But we don’t hope to reach that point.”