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Mideast Mediators Seek Anti-Tunnel Plan

An Israeli police officer in Sderot removes a Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters. An Israeli military spokeswoman said Hamas had used tunnels into Egypt to acquire 100 tons of explosives in the past year.
An Israeli police officer in Sderot removes a Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas fighters. An Israeli military spokeswoman said Hamas had used tunnels into Egypt to acquire 100 tons of explosives in the past year. (By David Silverman -- Getty Images)
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By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 7, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 6 -- The biggest hurdle to winning a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, according to diplomats and Israeli military officials, is a problem that has bedeviled Israel for years: how to stop Hamas from digging tunnels into Egypt in order to bring tons of rockets and other weaponry into Gaza.

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Mediators are trying to come up with an anti-tunnel plan to satisfy Israel, which has said it won't agree to a truce unless it includes concrete measures to prevent Hamas from rearming. Some of the ideas under consideration include construction of a giant underground barrier along the nine-mile border between southern Gaza and Egypt, as well as international military patrols with the authority to search for and destroy any freshly built tunnels, Israeli officials said.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair, who along with several other European leaders has been trying to broker a deal, said Tuesday in Jerusalem that an "immediate cease-fire" was within reach if a solution to the tunnel problem could be found.

"These circumstances focus very much around clear action to cut off the supply of arms and money through the tunnels that go from Egypt into Gaza," Blair told BBC radio. "I think that is the one basis on which we could bring a quick halt to" the fighting, he added. "Otherwise, I think we are in for a protracted campaign."

Israeli military officials estimated that they had blown up about half of the estimated 300 smugglers' tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border since Israel began airstrikes Dec. 27.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said that Hamas had used the tunnels to acquire 100 tons of explosives in the past year, among other supplies. "They basically smuggle everything from people to rockets," she said. Israel has imposed an economic blockade on Gaza since Hamas took exclusive control of the territory in June 2007, and Gazans have used the tunnels as their only means of trade with the outside world.

Israeli leaders acknowledged that the Gaza military campaign would serve only as a short-term fix and that Hamas would probably dig a new network of tunnels as soon as the Israeli military withdraws. As a result, they said, any cease-fire deal would need to include a provision for blockading the Egyptian-Gaza border, above and below ground.

"The result must mean an effective blockading of the Philadelphia route, with supervision and follow-ups," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with the newspaper Haaretz, referring to the corridor that separates southern Gaza from Egypt.

Israel has effectively sealed off Gaza's eastern and northern borders and closely patrols Gaza's western side along the Mediterranean Sea. But it has accused Egypt of turning a blind eye to the tunnels in the south, even though the 1978 peace accord between Israel and Egypt limits the security forces that each country can deploy along their shared border.

Israel's military had warned that smuggling would become a problem before it withdrew its soldiers and settlers from Gaza in 2005 and considered a variety of schemes to thwart potential tunnel diggers. The most audacious idea: an 80-foot-deep moat filled with seawater, with an estimated price tag of $250 million.

But the military nixed the moat proposal after Israel's attorney general said he would oppose it because of fears it would contaminate Gaza's scarce underground water supplies. A plan to dig a giant dry trench was also shelved because it would have required the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian homes along the border corridor.

Those and other plans to construct a subterranean barrier have been getting another look since Israel began its offensive in Gaza last month, officials said.

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