- 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.

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