- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2007

RAFAH, Egypt

Hidden inside a bedroom closet just feet from a crib and a bed, an Egyptian army officer lifted floor tiles to reveal a hole: the entrance to a tunnel for smuggling weapons extending hundreds of yards across the border into the Gaza Strip.

Tunnel entrances turn up in homes all over this border town. Another house nearby had two, one hidden in the kitchen and another in a backyard duck pen. Homemade tools were used to dig the holes, just wide enough for a person to crawl through the earth.

Egypt is under stepped-up pressure from the United States and Israel to stop the flow of weapons into Gaza since the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the coastal territory in June.

Egyptian officials counter that they need help from the United States and Israel, including more equipment to track the many passageways dug under the border and money to deploy more guards.

“We can’t stop all smuggling. We need more machines; we need double the number of border guards,” Egyptian army Col. Amr Mamdouh told reporters during a rare tour of the border area Sunday.

“Anywhere you stamp your foot on the ground, you will find tunnels,” he said.

The eight-mile Gaza-Egypt border is the sole land connection between the territory and the outside world not controlled by Israel, making it critical to the West’s attempts to isolate Hamas and prevent the Islamist movement from acquiring arms and money. The militant group is pressuring Cairo to let at least money slip through to bolster its rule.

Egyptian authorities are considering a plan to demolish all homes within 100 yards of the border area to prevent them from being used to hide tunnels. The owners would be compensated, Col. Mamdouh said.

The plan has aroused anger among Rafah’s Bedouin community. About 3,000 residents protested the house demolitions Monday, throwing stones at police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Security officials said at least one police officer was wounded and a 15-year-old Bedouin boy died yesterday of gunshot wounds from the clash.

The Bush administration is hoping to cut off Hamas as Washington tries to push forward the peace process between Israel and Hamas’ rival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls the government in the West Bank.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met with Arab foreign ministers yesterday in the Egyptian Sinai resort of Sharm el Sheik, seeking their support in the peace process. Egyptian and U.S. officials also discussed border issues.

Egyptian authorities have discovered six tunnels in the border town of Rafah since Hamas took over Gaza in mid-June, after days of fierce battles with Fatah fighters loyal to Mr. Abbas, Col. Mamdouh said.

He said the military could not say whether the rate of digging tunnels — or discovering them — has increased since the Hamas takeover. The Egyptians have found 138 tunnels since September 2005, when Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and transferred it to Palestinian control.

After the Israeli withdrawal, Egypt beefed up its presence at the border, deploying 750 guards. The smugglers responded by digging longer tunnels, extending past the immediate border area.

“Weapon smugglers dig tunnels that extend from Gaza to the heart of Rafah, which is why we need guards to go beyond the border line,” an Egyptian intelligence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in accordance with agency rules.

Border crossings in Rafah have been closed since the Hamas takeover and likely will not reopen as long as the militant group remains in control. European monitors at the crossings fled during the fighting, and the official Palestinian security forces — dominated by Mr. Abbas’ Fatah faction — have been ousted from Gaza.

That has left Hamas guarding the border from its side. During Sunday’s tour, a tent occupied by Hamas fighters in black uniforms was visible on the Gaza side.

Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, said the group has 200 fighters at the border. He insisted that Hamas was “making great efforts to protect the area” but would not comment on tunnels or smuggling.

Col. Mamdouh, who heads a military office for liaison with international organizations, said the Egyptian side has “no contact at all with Hamas” about running the border, but said the militant group was trying to show it can control the area, which during times of closure has been plagued by violence as Palestinians try to break into or out of Gaza.

“It’s very calm. They are trying to give the world a good image by keeping everything quiet on the border area,” he said.

Israeli government spokesman David Baker insisted that Hamas was still trying to smuggle weapons. “It is encouraging this and taking extensive efforts to bring this about,” he said. He would not comment on Egyptian efforts to stop smuggling.

Most of the tunnels — which also are used for drug smuggling — are dug from the Gaza side, usually about 2½ feet in diameter and extending up to 800 yards into Rafah, Col. Mamdouh said. They are dug using homemade tools, and some even have electric lighting.

Rafah’s Bedouin residents are paid to allow the tunnel entryways to be hidden in their homes.

In one house, next to the Salaheddin Gate crossing, Col. Mamdouh showed journalists the most recent discovery: a tunnel found a week ago hidden in a back yard where the family’s ducks and chickens are kept.

In the house’s kitchen was another hole, plugged with rocks by authorities after it was found weeks earlier. The owners of the home have fled and were sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison in a military trial.

Egypt has denounced Hamas’ takeover of Gaza and has joined Arab and international efforts to isolate it. But President Hosni Mubarak also runs the risk of a provoking a backlash if he is seen to be exacerbating the already deteriorating conditions for the 1.3 million Palestinians living in the territory.

About 4,000 Palestinians from Gaza have been stuck on the Egyptian side since the closure. Israel has approved the return of some refugees by passing through Israeli territory, and an Israeli security source said yesterday that more than 400 returned earlier this week.

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