- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 12, 2005

TEL AVIV - As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon prepares to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip, his pullback plan is being clouded by weapons smugglers who continue to supply Palestinian militants by tunneling under the Egyptian border, say Israeli military officers and politicians.

Since Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ordered security forces to deploy throughout Gaza in January, Palestinian policemen in Rafah have located and sealed dozens of tunnels. That hasn’t eased Israeli concern about the smugglers, and the Israeli press has reported that anti-aircraft rockets have been brought into Gaza through the tunnels.

“In the Palestinian Authority, there is one hand that is sealing tunnels,” said Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim. “And there is another hand that is smuggling rockets and weaponry. It’s a problem.”

Now Israel must decide whether it wants to rely on Egyptian and Palestinian security forces to block weapons flows that could pose an escalating threat, or retain its military presence along the border near Rafah after the withdrawal, where soldiers would be exposed to attacks from militants.

The origins of the tunnel dilemma go back to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. When the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Cairo, the Palestinian town of Rafah had spilled over the international boundary and eventually was split in two by an Israeli border fence.

Smuggling began soon afterward.

At first, black-market traders in drugs and cigarettes looked for weak spots in the border fence. By the time the Palestinians were given control of Rafah under the 1993 Oslo accords, the smuggling had gone underground. After the start of the Palestinian intifada, militants became a large part of the guns and bullets commercial traffic.

Over the past 4 years, Israel’s military has entrenched itself along a narrow border axis nicknamed “the Philadelphia corridor,” building a wall and guard towers that look down on refugee neighborhoods in Rafah.

The military has undertaken frequent incursions into Rafah to destroy tunnels, justifying the demolition of hundreds of homes said to be used as cover for Palestinian gunmen or to camouflage the exits of the smugglers’ tunnels. Rafah now is one of the most war-scarred towns in Gaza.

The army reportedly has a contingency plan to widen the Philadelphia corridor and dig a deep trench, a project that could require the demolition of more Palestinian homes. But the plan has been frozen, analysts say, as Israeli and Egyptian defense officials negotiate deployment of security personnel on the Egyptian side of the border.

Both the Palestinian and Egyptian governments have an interest in patrolling an orderly border rather than a boundary riddled with smuggler tunnels. If the two governments can show success in stopping the tunnel trade, Israel is likely to quit the Philadelphia corridor.

“It depends on how the disengagement goes,” said Amos Harel, military analyst for the daily Haaretz.

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