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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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"The smugglers are traders," he says. "They smuggle the most high-profit, economically valuable goods like drugs and cigarettes."

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Despite the challenges, Ali says the border guards have brought smuggling under control. He claims "there has been no smuggling of weapons or explosives into Gaza in all of 2008."

Israeli officials strongly dispute that claim, and independent analysts say it is exaggerated.

They point to a report released in April by the Intelligence and Terrorism Research Center (ITRC), a think tank with close ties to the Israeli defense establishment. The report says Hamas has exploited "the helplessness and inefficiency of the Egyptian security forces" and is using the tunnels to stock "a military buildup."

Reuven Erlich, ITRC director, doubts that Egypt has had much success against smuggling, but acknowledges they have been doing more since June.

"They may be making extra efforts now but so far they have not succeeded in reducing the scale of smuggling," he says. "Egypt needs to do more intensive intelligence and operational activity along the border between Sinai, Egypt, and the Gaza Strip."

An Israeli official with knowledge of border issues, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was no way Israel could open Gaza's borders while weapons and drug smuggling continues.

"The Egyptians say there are no weapons and ammunition being smuggled, and if that was true then everything would be OK, but that is not the case," says the official. "We know they are still smuggling weapons and narcotics. They smuggle whatever brings money to the people running the tunnels and to Hamas."

Ezzedine Shoukry, the director of the Arab-Israeli Project of the International Crisis Group, says that as long as the demand for smuggled goods is there, then smugglers will find a way to meet it.

But Mr. Shoukry argues that politics may play an even more important role than economics. He says that as long as the international community isolates Hamas, it has little choice but to seek legitimacy through force of arms.

"Without a political process that includes Gaza, what the international community is doing is creating a situation in which Hamas needs military capability to maintain their power and authority," he says.

"The main reason that Hamas took over Gaza was its military power, and the only reason that Israel does not invade and reoccupy Gaza is they know they would suffer serious military losses," adds Shoukry.

But in the Egyptian half of Rafah, smuggling is mostly about dollars and cents.

Standing in a small grove of olive trees in the backyard of an apartment building in downtown Rafah, a team of border guards surveyed a tunnel entrance discovered a day earlier next to a goat pen.

A narrow hole opened in the dry earth, surrounded by young soldiers with machine guns. An old woman screamed at them from under a nearby tree, while military attack dogs sniffed at the goats.

Sometimes local people get angry at the border guards when they discover their tunnels, says Ali, the LAWIO commander, because people whose land host tunnel entrances get a cut of the profits.

And in a poor town like Rafah, smuggling can pay handsomely. "The owners will rent them to anybody," says Ali. "They can rent them for $10,000 an hour if they are smuggling something big, like guns, bombs, or drugs. It is a business."