Egypt's cabinet approved on Wednesday a draft legislation proposed by the president punishing those who dig or use border tunnels for communication with foreign countries by life in prison.
The draft law amends article 82 in the penal code, adding that the life-in-prison penalty would punish whoever "digs, prepares or uses a road, a passage or an underground tunnel at border areas to communicate with a foreign body, a state or one of its subjects" or to help persons, goods, equipment or machines in and out of the country, according to a statement by the cabinet.
The same penalty applies to those who are aware of the use (or planned use) of underground tunnels for the aforementioned purposes without informing the concerned authorities, the legislation adds.
The legislation also allows the government to seize any buildings beneath which tunnels are dug or tools used to dig them.
Security forces have been targeting the illegal tunnels dug up in Sinai to connect it with Gaza, intensifying tunnel demolition starting July 2013.
Egyptian authorities say the tunnels are used to smuggle arms to militants in the Peninsula.
A report by the World Food Programme (WFP) in February 2014 said that since 2007, tunnel trade represented "the main supply and commercial trade route for goods into Gaza."
The WFP report said that the "closure of the tunnels by Egypt in July 2013 hampers the few remaining drivers of economic growth in the Gaza strip." It added that the closure affected "employment directly linked to the tunnel economy" and caused a reduction of food commodity imports.
Egypt's armed forces announced on Sunday the discovery of a 2.8 kilometre-long and three metre-deep on the eastern border. The tunnel was used by "terrorists" and "criminals" in the smuggling of individuals, goods, and "arms and ammunition", the army spokesman said in a statement.
Egypt is building a "buffer zone" at the shared border area between North Sinai and the Gaza strip. The cabinet issued a decision last October to clear 500 metres of the border area of civilians.
The area was, however, doubled to 1,000 meters in November, after discovering some tunnels in the Peninsula over 800 metres long.