CAIRO, Mar 12 (IPS) - Almost two months after the war on the Gaza Strip, the border area between the battered coastal enclave and Egypt continues to come under frequent Israeli aerial bombardment. Israeli officials say the strikes target cross-border tunnels used to smuggle weapons to Palestinian resistance factions.
“Israel is still regularly launching air strikes on the border area,” Ibrahim Mansour, political analyst and executive editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Dustour told IPS. “Such attacks represent a violation of all international rules and agreements, including the Egypt-Israel Camp David peace agreement.”
Throughout the course of Israel’s recent assault on the Gaza Strip (Dec. 27 to Jan. 17), the border zone between Egypt and Gaza was pummelled by hundreds of Israeli air strikes. Sources in the area also say that Egyptian airspace was repeatedly violated by Israeli aircraft during the campaign.
The onslaught officially ended with a unilateral ceasefire announcement by Israel. Since then, however, Israel has continued to strike at targets both inside the Gaza Strip - governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas - and along the strip’s 14-kilometre border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
“Air strikes on the border zone have continued on and off since the end of Israel’s war on Gaza,” Hatem Al-Bulk, local journalist and political activist told IPS. “Some weeks see as many as three or four strikes on the area.”
The last week has been no exception. According to Israeli daily Haaretz, Israeli aircraft bombed alleged smuggling tunnels on Sunday March 8 in retaliation against three rockets fired into Israel earlier the same day by Gaza-based resistance factions. On Wednesday (Mar. 11) Israeli warplanes again bombed the border area, injuring two Palestinians, according to Palestinian Health Ministry sources.
Local sources near Rafah, which straddles the border between Egyptian Sinai and the Gaza Strip, say the effects of the blasts are frequently felt on the Egyptian side of the divided town.
“Israel is using earth-penetrating munitions against targets in the border zone, explosions from which cause damage on the Egyptian side,” said Al- Bulk, a resident of Al-Arish, located some 40 kilometres west of the border. “Since the beginning of Israel’s assault on Gaza until now, hundreds of homes in Egyptian Rafah have been damaged as a result of Israeli bombardments.
“There are also suspicions that Israel might be using depleted uranium in some of these munitions, which could have a catastrophic effect on the local environment,” added Al-Bulk.
On Jan. 16 - a day before Israel’s unilateral ceasefire - the U.S. and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding with the ostensible aim of combating alleged arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. In general terms, the accord commits Washington to “accelerate its efforts to provide logistical and technical assistance and to train and equip regional security forces in counter-smuggling tactics.”
Egypt, which was not a signatory to the document, quickly rejected it as an infringement of its sovereignty. “We are not bound by anything except the safety and national security of the Egyptian people and Egypt’s ability to protect its borders,” Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said Jan. 17.
The agreement did not expressly call for international peacekeepers or monitors to be deployed to Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip. But on the same day, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak felt it necessary to stress Egypt’s refusal of “any foreign presence or monitors” on Egyptian territory. “This is a red line no one will be permitted to cross,” Mubarak said in a televised speech.
Since then, however, Egypt - anxious to prove its capacity for policing its borders - has beefed up security throughout the Sinai Peninsula, while new surveillance cameras have been set up along the border.
“Within the last two months, Egypt has installed advanced surveillance equipment in the area, which it received from the U.S.,” said Al-Bulk. “Egyptian security officers are also receiving training in the U.S. on how to search for and destroy smuggling tunnels.”
Inspections of the sensitive border area by U.S. officials have become commonplace since the end of the recent Gaza crisis.
“An official delegation from the U.S. embassy comes to inspect the border about once every five days. In the last six weeks, there have been roughly eight such visits,” said Al-Bulk. “They examine the Rafah crossing with Gaza, visit the Al-Auja and Kerem Abu Saalim border crossings (with Israel) and are shown tunnels discovered by Egyptian authorities.”
According to Mansour, the new border security measures come as a direct result of pressure on Egypt from Israel and the U.S.
“Israel constantly complains to Washington that Egypt ‘isn’t doing enough’ to thwart arms smuggling into Gaza,” said Mansour. “This translates into constant U.S. pressure on Egypt to tighten security on the border. Egypt is therefore accepting advanced surveillance equipment from the U.S. and allowing regular inspections of the border by U.S. officials in order to prove its commitment to combating smuggling.”
Some commentators say most tunnels are used for smuggling basic commodities that have become increasingly scarce due to the longstanding embargo on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Ever since the resistance group won Palestinian legislative elections in early 2006, the Gaza Strip has been hermetically sealed, with both Israel and Egypt keeping their borders with the territory tightly shut to people and goods.
“Most of the tunnels are of a commercial nature,” said Al-Bulk. “Some specialise in transporting livestock and poultry and others are equipped with railways to carry heavier goods. But relatively little is known about tunnels allegedly used for arms smuggling.”
“Most of the tunnels are used to transport everyday goods such as food and fuel, in order to offset the depravations of the three-year-old siege,” agreed Mansour. “If the siege was lifted, and Gazans had access to basic supplies, most smuggling activity would evaporate overnight.”
Over the regular Israeli air strikes on the border zone, Mansour questioned the lack of official reaction from Egypt.
“Egypt isn’t raising any objections at all to these regular strikes,” he said. “This raises questions about the covert relationship between Egypt and Israel - and even suggests the possibility that Egypt is tacitly permitting the strikes.”