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.

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.

Egypt itself is not a natural ally for Islamist Hamas, which is an offshoot of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood, the country's powerful opposition movement. Terror attacks in the Sinai over the years have been blamed by the Egyptian government on local Bedouins who have been radicalized by contact with Palestinian militants.

But controlling smuggling out of the Sinai is a decades-old, if not centuries-old, problem. Bedouins of the region have long been involved in moving goods across the border, from illegal drugs to tax-free cigarettes.

To be sure, Israel's critique has focused more on the smuggling and less on the Egyptian role, perhaps in part due to the sensitive point in negotiations over a possible prisoner exchange.

Israeli media reports hold that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is due to visit Egypt this weekend for a deal that might include the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails in exchange for the release of captured IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was captured in June when militants tunneled into Israel and attacked an army post.

Egyptian observers, however, say that Israel is laying blame for an ongoing problem that Israel couldn't solve in its 38-year occupation of Gaza.

"The Israelis themselves could not control those tunnels, so it's difficult for whoever does it, whether it's the Egyptians or international forces," says Fahmi Howeidy, an Egyptian columnist at the Al Haram newspaper in Cairo.

"I think this is being used to increase the pressure on the Palestinian government," he says. "What else to they want? They are bombing Gaza every day. They make it sound as if this smuggling is a new thing, but it's a very old thing."

The border is also frequently used for smuggling cash, according to some reports. Khaled Abu Toameh, the Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, reported Thursday that the Hamas's Interior Minister Sayeed Siam went into Gaza this week with his suitcases stuffed with millions of dollars in cash to pay Palestinian policemen. The newspaper put the sum at $3 to $10 million.

Stewart Tuttle, spokesman at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, says, "The Rafah arrangement where European monitors are working is an improvement over what was. Obviously, conditions aren't perfect. But this is a situation where the parties need to sit down and talk over what needs to be improved."

The official Gaza-Egyptian border crossing at Rafah has been closed for all but 12 days since Corporal Shalit was captured. Thursday, European Union Foreign Policy chief Javier Solana said he hoped the crossing would reopen on a regular basis soon.

EU officials who monitor the Rafah crossing have threatened to abandon their mission if Israel keeps closing the passage for what it says are security reasons.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that while there needed to be talk about operational issues at Rafah, Israel was happy with the EU's involvement there, the first time it has accepted a European role in security aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "We are going to negotiate with the Europeans on the future terms," she said. "But we are very positive about the role of Europe in monitoring the Rafah passage."

Dan Murphy contributed reporting from Cairo and material from the Associated Press was used in this article.

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