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10/29/2003

The Egyptian Underground
Rooting out the terrorists.

By Jonathan Schanzer
National Review Online, October 29, 2003.
http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/schanzer200310290832.asp

The roadside bomb that killed four Americans
recently had to have been imported into the
Gaza Strip from someplace. Odds are, it came
from underground tunnels between the Gaza
Strip and Egypt. Countless other weapons
used in terrorist attacks against Israelis in
recent years have also arrived via those
same subterranean routes. So, while Egypt
may not be directly responsible for the attacks
that take place in Gaza, it has indirectly allowed
Gaza's terrorists to arm themselves. In "other
words, it's time for Cairo to see the light, and
put an end to the tunnels.

Over the last ten years, the Israelis have
found 70 or more tunnels originating in
Egypt and leading to Gaza. Israeli Engineer
Corps have destroyed many, but the
Palestinians dig them as fast as they are
found. Recently, however, Israel received
intelligence indicating that there were at least
ten more in operation, and that increasingly
dangerous weaponry was being smuggled
through them. Alarmed by these reports, the
Israelis on October 9 launched Operation
"Root Canal," their most ambitious operation
yet in the Gaza town of Rafah, where the
tunnels empty out.

Israel went on the offensive because they
know these tunnels are a crucial supply line
of weapons for groups like Hamas and Islamic
Jihad. The weapons they receive - everything
from armor piercing weapons and automatic
rifles to mines and rocket-propelled grenades -
come from Egypt, Sudan and Libya. Raw
materials necessary to build the increasingly
accurate Qassam rockets, as well as high
explosives for suicide bombings, may have also
passed through the tunnels.

To ensure the steady stream of weapons, both
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, under the coordination
of Palestinian Authority officials, facilitate the
building and maintaining of the tunnels, which
cost about $10,000 apiece to build. But these
groups do not shoulder the financial burden
alone; reports indicate that the tunnels may also
be funded in part by the mullahs of Iran.

To protect the subterranean supply lines,
the Palestinians (and perhaps Egyptians)
burrow their tunnels more than 60 feet
beneath the surface to evade Israeli sonar
detection equipment. The mouths of the tunnels
are equally hard to detect; some actually open
up into Palestinians homes in Gaza. According
to Israeli sources, there are always three or
four tunnels operational at any one time. They
are extremely hard to find without good
intelligence.

To further protect their investments, Hamas,
|Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades
have been fighting tooth and nail in recent weeks
to repel the Israeli operations in Rafah. The
Israelis, for their part, actually distributed
brochures to the local population, explaining
that their operation was only designed to
uncover tunnels. Still, the top Palestinian terror
groups have hit the Israelis with everything they
can, including grenades, anti-tank missiles and
other ordinance. Clearly, the battle over tunnels
has become central to the wider conflict.

Operation "Root Canal" has so far yielded the
destruction of at least three tunnels. But the
Israelis are still very nervous. The September
arrest and subsequent interrogation of a
Palestinian Authority Security official revealed
to Israeli intelligence that the PA had smuggled
in eight anti-aircraft missiles through these
tunnels. According to the Palestinian suspect,
the missiles were designed to counter Israeli
attack helicopters. However, such missiles could
be used to target commercial airliners, too.

Clearly, these tunnels present one of the
gravest threats to regional peace. And equally
clear is that these tunnels originate in Egypt,
and that Cairo has not done enough to shut
them down. To date, Egypt has filled in a
handful of tunnels, particularly after sharp
complaints from the Israelis. Meanwhile,
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher
recently remarked that Israeli allegations of
Egyptian involvement "are old and silly." But
one high-ranking Israeli official reports that
"in some cases, Egyptian soldiers are directly
involved. They receive bribes or other
incentives for keeping the tunnels open."
Indeed, he personally witnessed smoke and
debris plume out of tunnel entrances that
began at Egyptian military guard posts.

As weapons pour into Gaza, leading to more
deaths and injuries, Washington should
consider a few practical steps. For one, the
US embassy in Egypt should undertake its
own survey work along the Egypt-Gaza border
to determine what assistance would be
necessary to close the tunnels. Once that
information is ascertained, the issue needs to
be raised to the highest levels. Indeed, the
next time President Bush meets with his
Egyptian counterpart, Husni Mubarak, a
serious discussion of this issue could
take place. If Egypt still does not see the
light, a team of multinational forces and
observers should be considered.

- Jonathan Schanzer is a Soref Fellow
at the Washington Institute for
Near East Policy.



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