By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 30, 2007
RAFAH, Egypt, July 29 -- Egyptian border guards have found about 75 percent fewer tunnels from the Gaza Strip since Hamas took control there, an indication of the radical Islamic group's broad success in reducing the smuggling of weapons and other contraband, a top Egyptian border official said Sunday.
Hamas forces, which took over Gaza six weeks ago, now operate new outposts and watchtowers under the Palestinian flag along the nine-mile border between the Palestinian territory and Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
Palestinian border guards, identified by Egyptian and U.S. officials as Hamas fighters, have shed the ski masks that Hamas fighters usually wear. They have adopted military-style short haircuts and wear dark T-shirts, changes that symbolize the group's efforts to transform itself into a security force capable of bringing order to the rougher of the two Palestinian territories.
"They want to show in front of the world that they are nice, that they are in control," Egyptian army Col. Amr Mamdouh said.
Hamas forces routed fighters of the rival Fatah faction from Gaza in the second week of June, shredding a Palestinian power-sharing government. The takeover left Fatah in charge only of Palestinian-administered portions of the West Bank.
Egypt, the United States and most other countries except Iran have pledged their support of Fatah's West Bank administration, calling it the sole legitimate Palestinian government. Egyptian border officials say they have no contact or coordination with their Hamas counterparts.
Since the takeover, Egypt and Israel have closed entryways into Gaza for all but essential humanitarian goods. Israel has long complained that Gaza's border with Egypt is a prime transit point for weapons, drugs, other black-market goods and illegal immigrants. Much of the smuggling takes place through tunnels -- some longer than a half-mile -- between Gaza and Sinai.
In the first days after the fighting ended in Gaza, Palestinian forces deserted their side of the frontier, leaving Palestinian boys free to fly kites in the wasteland between the concrete walls of the Palestinian boundary and the barbed wire of Egypt's frontier. But on Sunday, Hamas forces had posts in the border zone with tents, portable toilets and jeeps.
About 40 Hamas fighters guard the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt, officials said.
A 2005 accord that guided Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza-Egypt border limits Egypt to a total of 750 army border guards along the frontier. Egyptian police also patrol the 129-mile Egypt-Israel border.
Mamdouh on Sunday pointed out smuggling tunnels discovered by Egyptian forces in the past year, including one emerging from under the kitchen sink of a farmhouse in a closely guarded stretch of the border.
Ten days ago, Mamdouh said, Egyptian border guards found a branch of the same tunnel next door, its opening covered by metal and dirt in a corner of a chicken yard.
Before the Hamas takeover, Egyptian border guards found on average four tunnels a week from Gaza, Mamdouh said. They have found a total of six tunnels since then, he said, adding that smuggling from Gaza has decreased overall.
Israel complains that Egypt is not doing enough to seal its border with Gaza. The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed cutting $200 million in annual military aid to Egypt unless the country improves border security and meets other conditions.
Egyptian border guards insisted that they have been diligent in the nearly two years since Israel withdrew from the Gaza border zone. They say they have discovered 138 tunnels and confiscated weaponry including 161,066 rounds of ammunition, thousands of pounds of TNT and two suicide belts.
"We've made a very big effort here in the border," Mamdouh said.
To do a better job, he said, Egypt needs more intelligence information, sophisticated surveillance systems and more border guards than currently allowed, he said.
Egypt and Israel on Sunday allowed about 100 Gaza residents, most of them women, to leave Sinai through an Israeli border crossing. Israeli and Egyptian officials said they intend to allow passage for about 500 more in coming days.
More than 4,000 Palestinians have been stranded in Sinai since Egypt closed the Rafah crossing. They include dozens of Palestinian men, who on Sunday were washing their clothes and bathing on the grounds of the area's main airport. Asked about their conditions, one of the men said, "They're good." Egyptian security officials shepherded the men inside the closed airport terminal and refused to let them speak further.