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Egypt has begun the construction of a massive iron wall along its border with the Gaza Strip, in a bid to shut down smuggling tunnels into the territory. The wall will be nine to 10 kilometers long, and will go 20 to 30 meters into the ground, Egyptian sources said. It will be impossible to cut or melt.

The new plan is the latest move by Egypt to step up its counter-smuggling efforts. Although some progress had been made, the smuggling market in Gaza still flourishes.

Egyptian forces demolish tunnels or fill them with gas almost every week, often with people still inside them, and Palestinian casualties in the tunnels have been steadily rising.

Recently, Egypt examined several possibilities of blocking the tunnels, and joint American-Egyptian patrols have been seen in Rafah attempting to detect tunnels using underground sensors.

Construction of the wall has already begun. It will be made of enormous slates of steel, reaching deep into the ground. However, it is not expected to stem smuggling completely.

Several defense sources told Haaretz they believe that once captive soldier Gilad Shalit is released, Israel will have to re-examine the benefits of closing Gaza off. The closure has been undermined by the tunnel system, which provides not only munitions but food, cars, motorcycles, drugs, medicine and fuel, much more than what Israel allows into the Strip through the official border crossing.

The tunnels also allow people to cross in and out of the Strip, including terrorists who linked up with pro-Al-Qaida groups in Gaza and tried to carry out attacks in Egypt, defense sources said.

The smuggling industry is so institutionalized that tunnel operators purchase licenses from the Rafah municipality, allowing them to connect to electricity and water. Hamas has also been ensuring no children are employed in the tunnels, and is taxing all smuggled goods.

The Egyptians often intercept munitions before they can enter the Strip and have stepped up checks at internal roadblocks and checkpoints in the Sinai. Observers say mounting American pressure is in part responsible for increasing Egyptian efforts to combat the smugglers.