- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 19, 2004

JERUSALEM — Palestinian efforts to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip from Egypt have reached record levels, according to Israeli defense sources, as armed groups prepare for the possibility of internal clashes after Israel’s planned withdrawal next year.

In a surprisingly detailed assessment, the Israeli sources said that in the 18 months ending in July, arms smuggled into Gaza included 4,900 assault rifles, 330 anti-tank weapons, two tons of explosives and 380,000 rounds of ammunition.

Although Egypt has stepped up its efforts to stop the flow, smuggling continues at a rapid pace, mainly through tunnels under the Philadelphi Road, which marks the border between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and the southern end of the Gaza Strip.

The soft earth and the increasingly sophisticated excavation methods used by the smugglers have made it difficult for both the Egyptians and Israelis, on their respective sides of the border, to keep pace. The tunnel heads are located inside houses and, thus, not easily detected.

While some organizations control tunnels of their own, most of the digging is carried out by professional smugglers who sell the weapons to the highest bidders.

So far, the Palestinians have failed in their efforts to smuggle in strategic weapons, such as Katyusha rockets whose 12-mile range would put sizeable Israeli cities like Ashkelon within reach.

Ground-to-air missiles capable of downing Israeli helicopters, which play a key role in Israel’s battle with militants, have also been kept out.

In meetings with Egyptian counterparts, Israeli officials have said that if such weapons reached Gaza and were employed by the Palestinians, Israel would have to reply with massive force, inevitably leading to civilian casualties.

Egyptian security forces last week arrested eight persons who had planned to infiltrate the Gaza Strip, perhaps through a tunnel, with weapons, including an explosives belt to be used by a suicide bomber.

Egypt, which is interested in seeing a peaceful Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and in preventing fundamentalist Islamic forces from taking control there, has been pressuring Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to disband the military wing of his Fatah organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.

The brigade has developed close ties with the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, a radical Shi’ite organization. The Egyptian government, which, in the past, has put down violent uprisings by its own fundamentalists, wants to discourage Palestinian ties with Hezbollah, which, in turn, has close links with fundamentalist Iran.

Egyptian officials also have held talks with Hamas, perhaps the strongest force in the Gaza Strip, hoping to persuade it to suspend attacks on Israel once Israeli settlements and security forces are withdrawn from Gaza.

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