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Israel doubts Egyptians in border town will halt weapons to Palestinians

RAFAH, Egypt—On the surface, this town that straddles the border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip appears to be peaceful enough. Israeli troops patrol the Gaza side of the line, and Egyptians keep a tight rein on their side, where no one openly speaks against the Israelis, who claimed Gaza after the 1967 Six-Day War.

However, what happens below the surface, in secret tunnels that connect the two Rafahs, will help determine the fate of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip this summer. Before the July deadline to withdraw Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers from Gaza, Egyptian forces will have to stop smugglers from using the tunnels to ship weapons to militants on the Palestinian side of the border crossing.

The arms smuggling from Egypt has given some Israelis pause about trusting the job to the Egyptians. Israeli media reported late last week that Palestinian militants had received antiaircraft missiles capable of reaching planes over Israel through the tunnels. And the Israeli military announced Wednesday that its soldiers had arrested four armed Palestinians overnight who were trying to smuggle 53 handguns, 11 assault rifles and dozens of ammunition clips from Egypt to Gaza.

Israeli efforts to prevent arms smuggling have brought nearly daily death and destruction to Gaza's Rafah, but they're almost invisible on the Egyptian side.

"Egypt of Peace," pronounces an official sign behind the green metal gate called "Salaheddin," a key thoroughfare between Egypt and the Gaza Strip that Israel closed after the latest Palestinian intifada, or uprising, began in September 2000.

The agreeable facade masks the true feelings of Rafah's residents, who are linked by blood and culture to the Palestinians in the town of the same name on the other side of the border. First mentioned in Egyptian writings dating to 800 B.C., then home to the Philistines and later a dividing line between Egypt and Syria, Rafah is now largely in the Israeli-patrolled Gaza Strip.

Israeli forces have continually widened the no-man's land between the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Rafah. They've built walls above and below the ground and razed homes in an effort to cut off Palestinian militants from weapons and supplies. There's even discussion of building a canal along the wall.

Residents here liken what's happened to the division of Berlin during the Cold War. Husbands and wives, parents and children, and extended families complain of being separated.

Fighting on the Gaza side has added to Egyptian Rafah's anguish. Residents say they cringe whenever they hear the Israeli military pounding the other Rafah in battles with Palestinian militants.

"We cannot sleep," Egyptian Rafah Mayor Khairy Refai said. "It affects the children, especially when they hear the gunfire and explosions rocking their homes."

Shrapnel and even Israeli soldiers' remains, ripped apart by explosions, have rained down on them across the 25-foot-high corrugated metal barrier that Israel erected some three years ago, said Mahmoud Ibrahim, 25, who runs a sundries shop next to Salaheddin Gate.

"Of course there is hatred of Israel. We are on the border and we see what happens to our brothers, our families," in Gaza, said Hamdi Mahmoud al Shaer, 48, whose daughter and son-in-law are among the Rafah couples who can't get to each other because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There's international pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Egypt-Gaza crossing to help lay the foundation for a viable Palestinian state. One proposal would transfer patrol duties to a joint Egyptian-Palestinian force.

But Israel refuses to leave without assurances that Egyptian Rafah won't become a transit point for terrorists targeting Israel, less than an hour's drive away. While Egyptian police here are quick to crack down on anti-Israeli protests by Rafah's 40,000-plus residents, Israeli officials complain that Egyptian forces haven't done enough to curb the steady flow of weapons to Palestinian militants through tunnels dug beneath the border.

"The most important thing is we want to pull out of Gaza and not go back again," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said. "We've seen in the past that Jihadist groups try to smuggle in weapons—high-grade explosives and rockets—through the Egyptian border, and they will continue to do that.

"We want a situation where the border is sealed to prevent this smuggling. What we're asking for is not impossible. We have a long border with Jordan, and the Jordanians do a very good job of preventing the illegal smuggling of weapons. And we hope the Egyptians will do this."

Egyptian officials argue that they do the best they can given restrictions imposed by the 1978 Camp David peace agreement, which allows only police with light weapons to patrol the border. Israel and Egypt are discussing modifying those restrictions to allow for a stronger Egyptian presence on the border, Regev said.

The agreement applies to the entire Sinai Peninsula, where Rafah is. A multinational force is stationed there to ensure Egyptian compliance. Israel captured the peninsula during the 1967 Middle East war, and returned it as part of an Israeli-Egyptian peace deal.

Egyptian security is intense. Uniformed police officers and plainclothes intelligence agents at multiple checkpoints scrutinize every vehicle coming into or out of Rafah.

"In the first initifada, there were some rallies in the schools against (Israeli) occupation," said Egyptian Rafah resident Basma Nabil, 17. "Egyptian security services started causing problems because they saw it as organized, so we stopped."

Egyptian police have increased surveillance along the border recently to uncover tunnels, residents said. Nabil said the last tunnel she heard about was built two months ago. Israeli and Egyptian authorities intercepted those inside, including an Egyptian woman who was being smuggled to Gaza to marry her cousin, Nabil said.

The enforcement is breeding resentment among Rafah residents, who are skeptical about Israeli-Palestinian detente, despite high-profile summits and conferences in the Red Sea Resort of Sharm el Sheik and in Cairo.

Two months of no gunfire, loosened travel restrictions between Gaza and Egypt and the appearance of Israeli wares on Egyptian Rafah shelves also have failed to persuade them that the war between Israelis and Palestinians is ending.

"Honestly, we love Palestine; we miss Palestine," Nabil said, looking out her kitchen window at the 20-foot-high concrete wall Israel began constructing this winter. "If I had a chance to go every day, I would. But I don't believe that can happen."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry still hasn't issued permits for Egyptian Rafah residents such as al Shaer's daughter to rejoin spouses, children or parents who are living on the Gazan side.

"If someone wants to leave, do they construct a concrete wall?" al Shaer asked.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040519 Rafah tunnel

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