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Monday, December 17, 2007

U.S. weighs plan to help Egypt block arms smuggling to Gaza

About time...
Last update - 11:31 17/12/2007    
U.S. weighs plan to help Egypt block arms smuggling to Gaza
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent
The United States is examining the possibility of helping Egypt build a physical barrier to foil the weapons-smuggling tunnels that run from Sinai to Gaza.
The Americans plan to send a delegation of officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and engineers from the Department of Defense to Sinai in the near future to conduct an initial feasibility study and discuss the issue with the Egyptians.
The recommendation to send the delegation came from two senior administration officials who visited Israel and Egypt a few weeks ago to investigate Israel's claim that the Egyptians were not doing enough to stop weapons-smuggling into Gaza. The two, Robert Danin of the State Department and Mark Kimmitt of the Defense Department, went to Sinai to examine Egypt's handling of the problem first-hand.
In their report, the two proposed several possible solutions to the problem. The first was to give the Egyptians sophisticated tunnel-detection and demolition equipment that would aid them in locating and destroying the smuggling channels. The second was to dig a deep canal the entire length of the Gaza-Egypt border, filled with water, thereby making it much harder to tunnel under the line. The third was to create an obstacle along the border comprised of piles driven deep into the earth.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had also proposed the canal idea to the Egyptians about six months ago. Her idea was for a joint venture between Israel, Egypt, the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority.
Prior to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, when Israel controlled the Gaza-Egypt border, the Israel Defense Forces also used various methods to try and shut down the tunnels. One involved building a 10-meter-deep wall along part of the border.
The army also deployed engineering units with specialized equipment along the border to detect and destroy the tunnels; five soldiers from this unit were killed in May 2004 when an antitank missile hit their armored jeep.
The IDF also considered destroying hundreds of houses in the border town of Rafah in order to make room for a canal on the Gazan side of the border, but Israeli legal officials concluded that such widespread house demolitions would be a violation of international law.
The army also considered installing special sensors - "geophones" - that could detect movement in the earth and thereby identify tunnel digging.
Danin and Kimmitt also recommended setting up a trilateral security commission, composed of Israeli, Egyptian and American representatives, that would deal with all the issues related to the Gaza-Egypt border - weapons smuggling, border crossings by terrorists, border control and so forth. Israel, however, opposes such a commission.
"The Egyptians aren't doing enough against the tunnels, and the responsibility is theirs," explained a government source. "A trilateral commission would create a situation in which Israel was also responsible."
Israeli officials believe that while understanding of the problem caused by weapons smuggling is growing inside the U.S. administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her aides support the Egyptian position - which is that Israel must agree to amend the 1978 peace treaty, so as to allow more Egyptian soldiers to be stationed along the border. Egypt wants to double its current force of 750 soldiers, to 1,500, but Israel opposes this.
Egyptian defense sources told Agence France-Presse on Sunday that they had uncovered two weapons-smuggling tunnels that had apparently been used in the past, but did not find any weapons in them. The report said that Egyptian forces are destroying the tunnels, but did not mention any arrests having been made.
On a related issue, Israel lodged a protest with the U.S. last week, over what it termed Egyptian and Saudi aid to Hamas in allowing Palestinian pilgrims to leave Gaza to participate in the hajj to Mecca. Senior Foreign Ministry officials met with one of Rice's deputies, David Welch, and told him that Israel does not understand why the Egyptians enabled the pilgrims to leave, which helped Hamas and weakened PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
Livni, who is currently in Paris to attend a conference of donor nations to the PA, is expected to raise this issue in her meeting Monday with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

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