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Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is trying to put the need to stop the smuggling of arms from Sinai to Gaza high on the world's agenda, telling foreign leaders it is critical to reducing violence in the South.
Diplomatic officials said Livni was not promoting any particular way of sealing off the Philadelphi Corridor between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, nor was she asking for funds for the project. Rather, she was arguing that any cease-fire will only be temporary unless weapons can be prevented from pouring into Gaza.
There are an estimated 30 tunnels being actively used by terrorists to smuggle arms under the Philadelphi Corridor.
Following disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to deploy 750 of its border policemen near the route. But according to a high-ranking official in Jerusalem, the policemen are really elite undercover commandos who were deployed there by Cairo in an effort to change the strategic balance along the border.
At Sunday's weekly cabinet meeting, Livni said Israel needed to preserve its right to operate against Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank, even if there were a reduction in the number of Kassam rocket attacks. She also said Israel needed to continue demanding for a change in the situation along the Philadelphi Corridor.
"Any arrangement [in Gaza] will have to provide an answer to the problem of the arms build-up," she said. "We are working internationally to bring this message across, especially before the meeting of the Quartet and the G-8."
Representatives of the Middle East Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and UN) are scheduled to meet on Wednesday in Berlin, and the G-8 is set to meet on June 6-8 at Heiligendamm, Germany.
Livni is also expected to discuss Gaza and the arms smuggling from Egypt when she meets with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of a woman's leadership conference in Vienna on Wednesday.
One idea that has been revisited with the Egyptians in recent weeks is building a moat on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. In 2004, the Defense Ministry issued a tender for digging a moat along the Israeli side of the Corridor. The ditch would have been four kilometers long, 25 meters deep and 100 meters wide. The moat would supposedly force weapons smugglers to tunnel deeper and longer, making it easier for the IDF to detect them. The cost of the project is estimated to be in the tens of millions of shekels.
The Egyptian response, according to Israeli officials, is that the matter is "being considered" and "under discussion."
Diplomatic officials, eager to avoid tension with Cairo, maintain the Egyptians are trying to stop the smuggling, and are doing much more than they have in the past. They attribute Egypt's inability to stop the traffic not to a desire to see "Israel bleed," but rather to a cumbersome bureaucracy.
Defense establishment officials, however, are far less charitable, saying the Egyptians could do much more. According to the officials, Egypt has refrained from employing its troops effectively, trying to force Israel to allow the deployment of more forces.
"They want to change the strategic balance along the border with Israel," a senior defense official said.
In the run-up to Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), then-chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, warned that the additional Egyptian forces that prime minister Ariel Sharon had allowed to deploy there would turn out to be commandos disguised as border police.
According to Steinitz, Sharon initially agreed to allow 6,000 Egyptian troops, backed by helicopters and armored personnel carriers, to take up positions along the Gaza border, but reduced the number to 750 following pressure from the FADC.
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