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Israel Finds 9 Tunnels From Gaza Strip Into Egypt

Seven of the passages, one of which is 60 feet deep, are complete. The Jewish state says they are used for smuggling missiles and other arms.

October 19, 2006|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

TEL AVIV — The Israeli army announced Wednesday 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 conflict in Lebanon.

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 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 this summer in southern Lebanon, where, in the eyes of many Israelis, too little had been 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 angry with 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 Wednesday as tanks and troops operated along the border strip known as the Philadelphi corridor.

Israeli officials say that in the last year, Palestinian guerrillas hoping to counter Tel Aviv's vast military edge have smuggled tons of arms and explosives into Gaza through tunnels.

The weapons, the Israelis say, include 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. Militants have launched at least four Grad-type rockets since spring, though they have caused no casualties, say Israeli intelligence officers.

Militants also are believed to have imported dozens of antitank weapons like those Hezbollah's fighters employed with some success against Israel's armored forces in Lebanon.

A senior army intelligence official also told the Israeli Cabinet during a private session Sunday that Palestinian groups had smuggled antiaircraft missiles into Gaza, according to Israeli media reports. Such weapons would pose a threat to Israel's overwhelming airpower, which it has wielded to strike at militants launching rockets into Israel and to back up ground troops.

"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 there has been no sign yet that Palestinian fighters have used the most sophisticated weaponry they are alleged to have acquired.

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

Palestinians also note that Israel is constantly improving its arsenal.

"Our enemy is all the time using a different kind of forbidden weapons against innocent civilians, and nobody cares about that," said the spokesman for Hamas' military wing, who goes by Abu Obeida.

Yusef Rizqah, the Hamas government's information minister, compared the arms-smuggling allegations to the Bush administration's claims before the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein's regime was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction.

The possibility of wider fighting looms in light of Israeli warnings of intensified military actions aimed at Kassamlaunching crews and weapons storehouses. Officials in Tel Aviv say smuggling has shot up since the Israeli withdrawal last year left Gaza's southern border in the hands of the Palestinians and Egyptians.

The army has carried out numerous raids and other operations since launching a broad incursion after Palestinian militants tunneled under the border with Israel on June 25, killing two Israeli soldiers and taking a third back into Gaza. The fate of the captured soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit, remains unknown.

Israeli officials say Palestinian militants have long sought better weapons, and in some cases succeeded in getting them. But officials and analysts contend that the guerrillas learned from the example of Hezbollah, which suffered heavy losses but nonetheless surprised Israeli commanders with the breadth and sophistication of its arsenal during the 34-day conflict in Lebanon.

Some analysts say that in assessing the Gaza situation, Israel must draw its own lessons from the war in Lebanon. Military commanders say Hezbollah became a formidable combat foe through an ambitious drive to arm itself after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

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