Tunnels for smuggling arms are unearthed, Israelis say

9 passages between Egypt and Gaza Strip

October 19, 2006|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

TEL AVIV, Israel -- The Israeli army announced yesterday that it had uncovered nine tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt in a sweep designed to prevent Palestinian militants from smuggling in the types of advanced weapons used by Hezbollah in the recent Lebanon conflict.

The incursion, which began Tuesday night, was Israel's first along the border strip since withdrawing from Gaza last year. The Israeli military said it found seven completed smuggling tunnels, one more than 60 feet deep, and two others in the early stages of construction. At least two Hamas fighters died during clashes with the troops near the Rafah border crossing.

Israel wants to avoid a repeat of its experience during the summer in southern Lebanon, where, in the eyes of many Israelis, too little was done over the years to prevent Hezbollah from building up an impressive arsenal. That war ended indecisively but felt like a defeat to many Israelis still angered at the nation's political and military leaders.

"There will be no blind-eye policy in the face of the attempts to transform the Gaza Strip into south Lebanon," Defense Minister Amir Peretz said yesterday as tanks and troops operated along the border strip known as the Philadelphi corridor.

Israeli officials say Palestinian guerrillas have imported tons of arms and explosives into Gaza during the past year. They assert that militant groups hope to counter Israel's vast military edge by smuggling a range of arms, including advanced anti-tank missiles and possibly anti-aircraft weapons, through a network of tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.

The Israelis believe militant groups such as Hamas also have brought in 122-millimeter Grad rockets, which reach farther and pack a bigger punch than the homemade Kassams that militants have long fired into communities in southern Israel. Israeli intelligence officers say militants have launched at least four Grad-type rockets since spring, though they have caused no casualties.

The intelligence officers say militants have managed to import dozens of anti-tank weapons like those that Hezbollah's fighters employed with some success against Israel's armored forces during the Lebanon war.

A senior army intelligence official also told the Israeli Cabinet during a private session Sunday that Palestinian groups had smuggled anti-aircraft missiles into Gaza, according to Israeli media reports. Such weapons would pose a threat to Israel's overwhelming airpower.

"Being able to shoot a helicopter down would be considered a great success by Palestinian guerrillas," said Yiftah Shapir, who analyzes weapons proliferation in the Middle East at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

Israeli officials have yet to make public any evidence to support the claims. And while Palestinian fighters have reportedly launched some of the Grads, there has been no sign yet that they have used the most sophisticated weaponry they are alleged by Israel to have acquired.

Hamas officials deny the smuggling charges and instead accuse Israel of seeking a pretext for a broad and punishing military operation in the Gaza Strip that is aimed at destabilizing the Hamas government.

Palestinians also point out that Israel is constantly improving its arsenal.

Ken Ellingwood writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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