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Bombing prompts calls for more secure Israel-Egypt border

ALONG THE ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER—Route 12 winds for miles through desolate charcoal-colored mountains, caramel-colored ravines and rocky desert along Israel's southern border. There is little here to distinguish Israel from Egypt, save for a rusting, easy-to-jump, shoulder-high, razor wire fence that parallels much of the road.

"This isn't a fence," said Omer, a 24-year-old Israeli soldier as he and a colleague stood on a remote bluff last week mapping the border and the skimpy barrier that marks it. "This is (rear)-covering."

This laxly patrolled 140-mile border has been relatively peaceful in the quarter century since Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt after the two signed their historic peace treaty. The creation of a largely demilitarized frontier has allowed enterprising Egyptians to establish lucrative-but-illegal trade routes used to ferry drugs, sex workers, political refugees and laborers into Israel.

But the recent suicide bombing in Israel's southernmost resort of Eilat, a first for this Red Sea party town and the first inside Israel in nine months, has revived a debate over whether either side is doing enough to keep the border area calm.

"This will not do," said conservative Israeli lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, former chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. "What is really needed is a fence—and not less than a fence."

Steinitz and other Israeli leaders have long pushed for construction of a high-tech border fence with sensors and sophisticated surveillance equipment. But the cost, estimated at up to $460 million, combined with the relative calm along the border, have tempered interest in taking such a step.

Yossi Alpher, a former official with Israel's intelligence agency and now co-director of a Web site dedicated to promoting Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, called for building a more secure border fence, amending the Israel-Egypt treaties to allow both sides to put more forces in the area, and pressing Egypt to do more to secure the Sinai.

Egypt has faced intense international pressure to deal with the problems since Oct. 7, 2004, when a series of bombs at Sinai resorts killed 34 people. Over the next 18 months, nearly 90 people were killed in two similar attacks. Egypt responded by rounding up hundreds of suspects in a deadly crackdown on the region's Bedouin tribes that served to alienate many of the Sinai's established family networks.

"There's no doubt in our mind that the Egyptian government needs to do something to win back the popular support from the population of Sinai, which has become dangerously alienated," said Hugh Roberts, the Cairo-based head of the North Africa Project for the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict-analysis research group that issued a new report on the Sinai last week.

The Egyptian roundup had little impact on the smuggler routes through the Sinai run by a network of Bedouin and Cairo-based crime rings. They provide Israel with a regular supply of Eastern European sex workers, maids, day laborers and drugs. Because Israel has been slow to curb the flow of human smuggling, the U.S. State Department lists it as one of 39 nations on a special watch list.

In response, Israel has begun taking a more aggressive—and increasingly deadly—approach to patrolling the border.

In one week last spring, the Israeli military killed a drug smuggler, a Sudanese refugee seeking political asylum and two Egyptian police officers who crossed into Israel.

"We have no way to distinguish between various infiltrators," Israel Defense Forces Lt. Michal Schneiderman told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz last fall. "From the moment we learned terrorist elements were active in the area, every border crossing became a terrorist infiltration requiring the same rules of engagement. Until we catch them, we don't know who they are."

Israel's biggest border fears were realized Jan. 29 when a 21-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber sneaked out of the Gaza Strip and into Eilat, where he killed three people when he blew himself up at a bakery. Israeli officials suspect that the bomber left Gaza through the Egyptian border and then, with the aid of Sinai smugglers, crossed into Israel near Eilat.

No one knows how many people come across this border. Civil rights groups estimate that upwards of 1,500 people each year pay smugglers $2,000 or more to sneak into Israel. Last year, Israel captured 450 people coming across the Sinai border, according to Israeli military sources. About 100 were Palestinians from Gaza, according to Israeli media.

Aside from a fence, another option would be for both countries to place more troops along the border. But the ability of both countries to do so is limited by the 1979 peace treaty that returned the Sinai to Egypt. Israel is allowed to place no more than 4,000 military personnel along the border, while Egypt can only use lightly armed police on the other side.

After much debate, Israel agreed last year to let Egypt post 750 soldiers along its border with the Gaza Strip when Israel officially ended its 38-year military rule over the Palestinian territory. Israel hoped the new Egyptian forces would crack down on the underground tunnels used to ferry weapons, militants, money and other supplies into the Gaza Strip. But Egypt appears to have done little to stem the flow, and Israel expressed its frustration last summer by bombing tunnels between Gaza and Egypt.

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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