Israel nudges Egypt to crack down harder on Gaza smugglers
Networks of tunnels underneath the Egypt-Gaza border are used to ferry everything from food to weapons into the impoverished Gaza Strip.
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Officials on both sides say a vast network of tunnels is used by smugglers to ferry everything from cigarettes and fuel to machine guns and grenades into the Gaza Strip.
Since Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Egyptian forces have been responsible for cracking down on this smuggling, with the discrete assistance of US Army specialists. But Israeli officials have increasingly voiced discontent with Egypt's policing. They strongly dispute its claims of success, saying that Cairo's efforts have improved over time but that there is still much that needs to be done.
"There is a certain improvement in this arena in the last few weeks. The measures have been tightened but the results are still far from satisfying because there are still smuggling tunnels," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters on Aug. 26.
"Gaza is a big headache for us," says Lt. Col. Yasser Ahmed Ali, commander of the Liaison Agency with International Organizations (LAWIO), an Egyptian military branch that works with multinational peacekeepers in Sinai.
"Since 2005 we have found 452 tunnels," he says. "Maybe we find five tunnels in one day, or 10 or more. Maybe we'll find one on one day and then for the next two days nothing."
The border guards' job has gotten harder, he says, since Israel began blockading Gaza in June 2007, when Hamas gained control of the coastal strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement based in the West Bank.
The blockade has created shortages of food, medicine, and fuel in Gaza, and has been denounced by Human Rights Watch as an "unlawful" form of "collective punishment."
Colonel Ali says that he believes that until the Israeli blockade ends there is only so much Egypt can do to stem the tide of illegal goods going under the border. "Smuggling will never end," he says. "If the Israelis want the number of smugglers and tunnels to decrease, then they should open Gaza up regularly. We need a legal way to make trade OK."
Still, Egypt has been cracking down on the underground smuggling operation. Early last month, Hamas blamed Egypt for the deaths of eight Palestinians when it used water, gas, and explosives to collapse tunnels under the border.
Smugglers used to bring mainly food and medicine into Gaza, he says, but have since moved on to more profitable, and less humanitarian, forms of contraband. Since 2005, border guards have found hundreds of guns, including 220 AK-47s; 18,465 kilograms of TNT; thousands of bullets; stashes of heroin, marijuana, and hashish; 16,821 packs of cigarettes; and Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, American and Saudi currency worth $149,455.