Israel may let more Egyptian troops at Rafah

Gaza terror cell caught in Sinai with explosive belts, others still believed in hiding.

PalestinianKidRafah 224 (photo credit: AP)
PalestinianKidRafah 224
(photo credit: AP)
Israel and Egypt are in advanced talks over possible deployment of additional Egyptian troops in Sinai in an effort to seal the border with Gaza that was breached last week, defense officials said Wednesday. The officials said that while Defense Minister Ehud Barak had yet to formulate his position on the issue, Israel was seriously considering an Egyptian proposal to allow the deployment of additional forces along the Egyptian-Gaza border. Following disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel allowed the deployment of 750 Egyptian soldiers along the border, but has since refused requests from Cairo to increase the number. Egypt claims that to effectively combat the weapons-smuggling industry in Rafah, it requires additional forces along the border. "This possibility is under consideration," a senior defense official told The Jerusalem Post. "We have yet to make decisions, but it could be that the new reality along the border will cause us to change our position and allow the additional deployment." The head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, Amos Gilad, and his staff have been holding intensive talks with Cairo and specifically Omar Suleiman, head of the Egyptian intelligence services. Defense officials warned Wednesday that the fenceless border between Gaza and Egypt posed a severe security risk. Also Wednesday, Egyptian officials said security forces captured a cell of Palestinian terrorists that infiltrated Sinai from Gaza and was in possession of a number of explosive belts. Israeli defense officials confirmed the report and said that additional Gazan terrorists, with plans to infiltrate into Israel, were believed to be hiding in Sinai after crossing into there via the open border in recent days. A report in the semi-official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram said several other Palestinians were caught in Egypt with blueprints of the border crossings between Israel and Egypt, including the location of security posts. The Egyptian authorities also confiscated sniper rifles and explosives that were found in the possession of the suspects. The report also said that other Palestinians had tried to bribe Egyptian policemen to allow them to cross border checkpoints with explosives and weapons. Israel has been asking Egypt for years to do more to prevent the smuggling of arms and terrorists into the Gaza Strip, even before 2005's disengagement. Each time, Egypt has asked for more forces or armaments to be allowed in Sinai, and Israel - except for one time in 2005 - has refused on the grounds that it was not interested in reopening the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Under the treaty, four security zones were established - three in Sinai and one in Israel along the Egyptian border - with strict limitations on military forces and equipment within each zone. The role of the Multinational Force and Observers team in Sinai is to monitor that these stipulations are honored. One Israeli diplomatic official said a decision on whether or not to allow the Egyptians to introduce additional troops or heavier arms would depend on the entirety of what was agreed upon between the Egyptians and the Palestinians regarding the border. In the meantime, Israel has not yet formulated a policy regarding whether it wants to see the Palestinian Authority control the Gaza border crossings. Meanwhile Wednesday, Col. Nir Press, head of the IDF's Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration, convened a meeting with top Agriculture Ministry officials to discuss the possibility that some of the thousands of animals brought from Egypt into Gaza in recent days were infected with contagious diseases. The meeting was attended by officials from the World Health Organization, Director of the Veterinary Services Moshe Haimovitz and his Palestinian counterpart. During the meeting, Haimovitz and Press decided that next week Israel would transfer vaccinations against hoof-and-mouth disease to Gaza. Press said that while there were currently no signs that the animals imported into Gaza were infected, various animal diseases were prevalent in Egypt and could have made their way to the Strip. "If there are infected animals in Gaza it is only a matter of time before the disease makes its way to Israel," Press said. Khaled Abu Toameh contributed to this report.