Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tunnels Under Gaza

Five Kassam rockets fell in the fields near Sderot on Wednesday but caused no injuries. This came as Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with his Egyptian counterpart, and then Egypt’s president, in the Sinai resort town of Sharm El Shek. This was Barak’s first journey to Egypt in his present position.

Barak was to have voiced his concern over the lack of Egyptian action in stopping the flow of arms into Gaza through underground tunnels that originate in Egypt. And to discuss the issue of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, now in his second year of captivity in Gaza.

The Egyptian Army has a force of approximately 750 soldiers patrolling the border, but they avoid any confrontation with the smugglers or Hamas, reportedly either for ideological or monetary reasons. A report in the Jerusalem Post last week stated that the Israeli defense establishment has distributed videotapes of Egyptian soldiers helping the smugglers.

Egypt has suggested increasing the number of troops to help stop the smuggling, but the Israelis are against any increase.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, a member of the US Senate Appropriations Committee, on a visit to Israel, said he was in favor of scaling back US aid to Egypt unless the Egyptian government was more proactive in stopping the flow of arms from Egypt to Hamas. Specter called Egyptian complicity in the smuggling “an intolerable situation.” According to the Jerusalem Post Specter said, “Egypt can do a lot more…and if they don’t, I think it would be appropriate to condition aid to them.”

According to the Israeli daily Yideot Achranot, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit blamed the Israeli lobby in the US for pressuring the American government to cut back on aid to Egypt, and souring relations between Egypt and Cairo, using the tunnel smuggling as the excuse. Egypt receives approximately $2 billion a year in US aid, including $1.3 billion in military assistance.

Defense Minister Barak also met with Egyptian president Hussnei Mubarak. According to the Haaretz daily newspaper the Egyptian leadership said that the Israeli construction in settlements around Jerusalem threatens peace. Recently Israel announced that it was building an additional 307 housing units in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa. Mubarak reportedly echoed Palestinian demands that Israel cancel the project.

According to the Jerusalem Post, Mubarak told reporters after the meeting with Barak, “This settlement activity will hijack the only outcome of the Annapolis conference which was the re-launching of peace negotiations.” Mubarak blamed the settlement activity for the failure of the last two meetings between the Israelis and Palestinians.

A recent poll showed that most Israelis have little faith in the Annapolis summit producing any positive results.

The meeting between Mubarak and Barak reportedly was held in a pleasant atmosphere. Barak was expected to raise the matter of Gilad Shalit with Mubarak, the Iranian development of nuclear weapons, as well as the possible invasion of Israeli troops into Gaza to stop the constant Kassam shelling.

Explaining how they’d stopped smuggling, Egypt said it had arrested two smugglers last week and seized 200 kilograms of explosives. Israeli analysts speaking on Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet said they believe this was just a token action taken prior to the meetings to show Barak and the world that something was being done. The same analysts said that Egypt could just as easily close down scores or even a hundred such tunnels.

The tunnels are used not only for weapons and explosives, but also for contraband, like cigarettes, which sell in Gaza for 60 shekels or about $15 a pack. Prostitutes from the former Soviet Union, and drugs, are also smuggled in the tunnels. A few Gaza families reportedly dig and control most of the tunnels and make appropriate payoffs to keep the arms and other goods flowing.

The Israeli press also reported that Iran announced it has been promised a steady supply of S-300 long-range surface-to-air missiles by Russia. The announcement was published on Wednesday in the Iranian Fars news agency, and quoted Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar on the deal. The S-300 is an anti-missile and anti-aircraft system, similar to the US Patriot anti-missile battery.

Russia has also agreed to deliver nuclear fuel to Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday. The paper quotes Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying the fuel deal makes it unnecessary for Iran to continue to enrich uranium.

U.S. President George W. Bush said last week that he supports the Russian fuel shipments, since they make take away the Iranian need for uranium enrichment. Israeli officials said last week that Moscow had no interest in seeing Iran reaching an independent nuclear capability.

Bethlehem was booming this Christmas. Reportedly more tourists visited Bethlehem this year than any time since the second Intifada began, approximately seven years ago. Observers believe this is a sign that some stability has come to the region, especially in the relationships between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government. This year has also been a record year for tourism in general as relative peace has attracted millions of visitors to Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces announced that in the last month they had busted a Hamas terrorist ring in Nablus, in the west bank, even though Hamas claims not to be exporting terrorism out of Gaza.

The terrorists admitted that they perpetrated several shooting attacks against
Israeli targets in Nablus and in the surrounding areas, including the
Oct 24, 2007 shooting attack at the west bank’s Ariel junction, in which an Israeli civilian was lightly wounded and an IDF soldier was seriously wounded. The terrorists also admitted responsibility for the Jan 7, 2005 shooting attack near Migdalim in
which two IDF soldiers were killed

According to the IDF Abdallah Kuka, 19, admitted he drove the vehicle; Amin Kuka, 32; and A'mar Tanbur, 23, admitted they were the other two Nablus terrorists who perpetrated the attack. Other members of the terrorist cell who admitted involvement in the attack were Riad Arafat, 34, who said he functioned as the reconnaissance observer, and Suhil Kuka, 21, who admitted aiding the cell after the attack was carried out.

The IDF believes that by uncovering this cell they prove that Hamas is planning attacks on Israelis in the west bank, Gaza and Israel proper, and is trying to take over as “the leader of Palestinian terrorism.”

Given that the rockets continue to fall on Israel from Gaza, and that Hamas controls Gaza, it is not a big reach to conclude that Hamas is behind the Kassam missiles, as well as other terrorist attacks. But, according to military analysts, unless Hamas bombs begin exploding again on a daily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the IDF will be slow to invade Gaza, relying more on diplomacy and back channel meetings.

The same analysts believe, however, that if the tunnels from Egypt aren’t sealed up its only a matter of time until Hamas begins importing Iranian long-range missiles which can hit Ashkelon, Ashdod, and even Tel Aviv.