- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2004

TEL AVIV — As Israel’s army launched an unprecedented offensive to clear the Gaza Strip-Egypt border of weapons-smuggling tunnels, a former Israeli commander of the region said Israel would be better off withdrawing from the flash-point area.

Israeli helicopters pounded the border town of Rafah yesterday as ground troops went house to house in clashes that left at least 20 Palestinians dead, including two teenage siblings, the Associated Press reported.

The largest incursion into a Palestinian town in more than two years of fighting was aimed at uncovering the subterranean routes that reportedly serve as the main arteries for ammunition for Palestinian militants. Israeli officials said the operation is open-ended, warning that Islamist groups such as Hezbollah are planning to use the tunnels to aid the Palestinians with long-range rockets.

“Rafah has become a gate for terror,” said Israeli army chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon. “We plan to make arrests, to uncover tunnels and also to reach anyone who is involved with smuggling.”

Much of the fighting is focused on the “Philadelphi” security corridor, which runs along the border with Egypt. The buffer zone is adjacent to a refugee neighborhood, where, Israel says, houses are used by Palestinian militants as cover for tunnel openings and to fire on military patrols.

In the past week, 13 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza Strip, the heaviest toll since the outbreak of the fighting.

But reserve Col. Yuval Dvir said he thought the Israeli army would be hard-pressed to wipe out the smuggling or the Palestinian militants in Rafah.

Col. Dvir, who oversaw the establishment of the security strip in 1982, said widening the buffer zone was impractical.

“If they expand it 200 or 300 yards, we’ll have to wreck half the city. It will be difficult for them to broadcast those images to the world,” he said. “It will limit the smuggling, but they’ll find a way to bypass it.”

Col Dvir, a member of a dovish forum of ex-army officers known as the Council for Peace and Security, said even if Israel were able to shut down the tunnels, Palestinian militants would continue to attack Israeli outposts in the strip of coastal land captured from Egypt in the 1967 Arab-Israel war, he said.

“Is there a shortage of weapons in the Gaza Strip? No,” he added.

Col. Dvir, who was responsible for the Gaza Strip and the Northern Sinai on the eve of Israel’s final withdrawal from the peninsula in 1982, collaborated on setting up the border zone with then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon is now Israel’s prime minister.

Because the Egyptians never recognized the Gaza Strip as Israeli-controlled, they don’t bother policing the illegal smuggling activity that started almost immediately. If Israel were to withdraw from the buffer zone, Egypt would be forced to clamp down on the smuggling, he said.

“The behavior of the Egyptians will be completely different,” he said.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday denounced the Israeli operation as a massacre, appealing for international intervention, the AP reported.

In Washington, President Bush praised Israel for its battle against terrorism while expressing concern over the fighting in Rafah.

“The unfolding violence in the Gaza Strip is troubling and underscores the need for all parties to seize every opportunity for peace,” Mr. Bush said at a convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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