Trouble sealing Egypt-Gaza border
Israel alleges militants have increased cross-border smuggling.
Just under a year ago, Middle East peacebrokers reached what was heralded as a relative breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate: an agreement on border crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip.Skip to next paragraph
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A mix of Egyptian soldiers and European observers would monitor and control transit of goods and people in coordination with the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces.
In theory, it was ideal. Israelis would meet security needs by tracking cross-border travel – but only from a distance. Gazans would enjoy longed-for freedom from loathed Israeli checkpoints.
But in practice, Israelis charge, it's been a flop. Several politicians here are now calling for a unilateral reoccupation of the "Philadelphi" route, the name for the strip of land between Gaza and Egypt, and Israeli military raids into Gaza have increased in the past week in what officials here say are antismuggling operations.
The border crossings deal, lauded as the most significant achievement of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the region when she brought Israeli, Palestinian, and international officials to the table to sign the arrangements last November, is virtually vanishing.
One of the most pivotal points in this was the role of the Egyptian Army in guarding the border to prevent arms smuggling or easy access for militants across the border.
Instead, Israeli officials say, the Gaza-Egyptian border is being used as a route for arming Hamas and other militant groups in anticipation of widely expected battles with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In the past few days, the IDF says it has destroyed 15 tunnels.
"Israel, over the last few months, has seen some of the negative side-effects of fighting in Lebanon in that there's been a step-up of arms smuggling," says Miri Eisin, the spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We left in September 2005 and there's been smuggling the whole year long," she says.
"What's happened now is that they're trying to smuggle in more advanced weapons. We mean antitank weapons of the sort which were used against us in Lebanon, some of them Russian-made and some of them Iranian-made, and also antiaircraft weapons, which we've been worried [about] in the past, but now it's much more concrete," she says.
Israel, Ms. Eisin says, understands that Egyptian officials have a difficult time exercising control over such a wide swath of border.
"At the moment, you can say that it's being watched, but not with great success. But we know the Egyptians have no interest whatsoever in the smuggling, and we know they have problems in Egypt with fundamentalist terrorism.
"We would like them to do more, but we have an understanding of the fact that their situation is not simple," she says. But, "there are two authorities that are responsible there, the Egyptians and the Palestinians."
In Egypt, officials have said they have increased border patrols in response to Israel's complaints, and local newspapers said that four alleged arms smugglers have been captured in the past week.