By YAAKOV KATZ, BRENDA GAZZAR, AP
Goods were being smuggled into Gaza from Sinai on Wednesday, even as security envoy Amos Gilad prepared to meet Thursday with Egyptian officials to discuss a long-term truce with Hamas, fighting arms smuggling, and lifting the blockade on the Strip.
Four days after Operation Cast Lead ended, AP Television News footage showed Palestinian smugglers filling a fuel truck with gas that had come through a tunnel from Egypt.
The footage also showed workers clearing blocked tunnels, and bulldozers carrying out other repairs.
One of the stated goals of the IDF offensive was to stop the smuggling through the hundreds of tunnels under the border.
On Thursday, Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, will travel to Cairo for talks about a new anti-smuggling mechanism.
Officials told The Jerusalem Post that the new mechanism Israel had set up with the Egyptians consisted of three layers.
The first layer focuses on intelligence cooperation regarding arms shipments en-route to Sinai to be smuggled into Gaza. Last week, the cooperation led to both Israel's and Egypt's refusal to allow an Iranian boat - claiming to be carrying humanitarian aid - to dock in Egypt or in Gaza. The assessment in Jerusalem and Cairo was that the boat was loaded with weaponry for Hamas.
The second layer of the mechanism deals with the Egyptian side of the Philadelphi Corridor, under which Hamas digs its smuggling tunnels. Egypt currently has 750 border policemen deployed along the border and has asked that Israel waive the limits in the peace treaty and allow Egypt to increase that number to around 2,000. The Defense Ministry has rejected the request, and defense officials said Wednesday that Egypt's problem was not a lack of policemen.
Instead, Israel and Egypt are discussing the deployment of new tunnel-detection technology along the border.
"There is no reason to open the peace agreement with Egypt so they can deploy more soldiers along the border," a senior defense official said. "They already have the necessary manpower to stop the smuggling."
Defense officials said Gilad would likely travel to Egypt every other week to oversee the effectiveness of the mechanism.
While both Gilad and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have opposed increasing the number of Egyptian security personnel along the border, other defense officials told the Post that they saw no reason not to allow Egypt to increase its forces.
"If this is what the Egyptians want, then let them have more soldiers," said one senior Defense Ministry official. "This way, Egypt won't have any more excuses for why it's not stopping the smuggling."
The third layer involves working inside Sinai and creating obstacles at the entrance to Egyptian Rafah to stop the weapons and explosives from ever reaching the border. One of Israel's recommendations has been to set up checkpoints along the roads leading to Rafah and to inspect vehicles entering the town.
In the talks with Israel, Egypt is planning to discuss its desire to station additional border guards along the Philadelphi Corridor, an Egyptian official said on Wednesday. The official could not say when it would be negotiated or how many additional troops Egypt would request to add.
Many other ideas, such as the moat proposal and building a barrier around Rafah, are currently "under study" by Egypt, he said.
"We expect to start negotiations about the Egyptian request to put an additional number of border guards [along the Philadelphi Corridor] soon," he told the Post. "The idea is on the table, and we will negotiate it."
He added that "Israel knows well that we are doing our best, and if they say it's not enough, it is our capabilities, and we are advancing our efforts in this regard."
The official said Egypt was open to examining any proposal, but as President Hosni Mubarak affirmed in a speech on Saturday, Egypt would not accept the deployment of any foreign troops or observers on its sovereign territory.
"We refuse any kind of international presence on our land, but we are ready to cooperate with all countries to secure assistance, technology and equipment," the Egyptian source said.
On Thursday, Gilad and his Egyptian counterparts are also expected to discuss securing a truce between Israel and Hamas, as well as securing the borders and opening the crossing points.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said Wednesday that his country would not allow foreign naval forces to operate in its waters to prevent weapons smuggling.
He spoke to reporters as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni headed to Brussels, where Israeli officials said she hoped to clinch a deal committing the EU to contribute forces, ships and technology to stop arms smuggling to Hamas.
EU officials said it was too early for that, saying efforts to provide humanitarian relief and to secure a lasting cease-fire were their priorities.
On Saturday, Aboul Gheit dismissed a US-Israeli agreement aimed at curbing weapons smuggling into the Gaza Strip and said his country would not be bound by it.
The US and Israel can "do what they wish with regard to the sea or any other country in Africa, but when it comes to Egyptian land, we are not bound by anything except the safety and national security of the Egyptian people and Egypt's ability to protect its borders," Aboul Gheit told reporters.
The deal signed in Washington on Friday helped pave the way for Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire a day later. The agreement outlined a framework under which the US would commit detection and surveillance equipment, as well as logistical help and training to Israel, Egypt and other nations to be used in monitoring Gaza's land and sea borders.
The US has been sharing its technical expertise and knowledge in tunnel detection since late 2007 at the request of the Egyptian government. This technical assistance is provided by approximately a dozen US Army Corps of Engineers civilian employees who serve in an advisory role and are in Egypt at the invitation of the Egyptian government, said Lt.-Col Patrick Ryder from the office of the US assistant secretary of defense.
According to Egypt, most of the smuggled weapons come into Gaza by sea, and not by land. Israel disagrees.
The London-based Al-Hayat daily on Wednesday quoted Muhammad Bassiouny, chairman of the Egyptian parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, as saying there were Israeli-Egyptian negotiations concerning doubling the number of Egyptian forces at the border.
"We requested another 750 soldiers to monitor this region in addition to the 750 soldiers from the border guard unit that are already there after Egypt signed the protocol with Israel," he said, according to the newspaper.
In contrast to the Egyptian source who spoke to the Post, Bassiouny indicated that these negotiations were already under way.â€¢
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