Israel renews tunnel hunt

Special to World
Monday, December 29, 2003

GAZA CITY Israel's military assesses that Palestinian insurgents maintain between five and 10 tunnels to smuggle weapons from Egypt to the Gaza Strip.

Israeli military sources said Palestinian insurgents have lost as many as eight tunnels since October in Israeli operations in the southern city of Rafah. The tunnels, some of which are located 80 meters below the ground, connect the Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah to the adjacent Sinai Peninsula controlled by Egypt.

On Dec. 23, an Israeli combined task force raided dozens of homes in the Rafah camp in search for Palestinian weapons tunnels. The force was said to have found and destroyed a Palestinian tunnel.

The Israeli operation encountered heavy Palestinian resistance. Eight Palestinians were killed and 40 were injured in clashes with Israeli infantry forces, backed by tanks and helicopters.

A senior Israeli military source said Palestinian insurgents linked to the Palestinian Authority regard the tunnels as their lifeline for weapons and drugs, among the biggest sources of revenue in the Gaza Strip. The source said the insurgents have at least five and no more than 10 tunnels in operation.

Hours later, Hamas gunners from the Beit Hanoun area fired two Kassam-class short-range missiles toward Israeli communities in the northern Gaza Strip. One of the missiles slammed into a house and two people were injured.

In the West Bank, Israeli authorities announced the capture of 22 Hamas operatives suspected of killing 10 Israelis in shooting ambushes over the last two years. They said the Hamas cell received more than $80,000 in funding from the organization's command in Syria to finance a network of operatives.

The Hamas cell had planned to kill and decapitate Israeli soldiers in the Ramallah area to enable the insurgency group to negotiate the release of Hamas detainees in Israeli prisons.

"The infrastructure had tens of thousands of dollars at its disposal, which it used to acquire war materiel, vehicles, cellular telephones, etc. and to disburse to its members," an Israeli government statement said.

The Israeli operation was described by an Israeli military source as seeking to stop Palestinian insurgents from renewing tunnel operations in Rafah. The source said military intelligence had received information that insurgents were trying to refurbish tunnels destroyed in a previous Israeli operation in October.

Israeli troops raided homes at the edge of the refugee camp near the Egyptian border in a search for tunnels. Palestinian sources said several homes were damaged by Israeli fire.

Earlier, two Israeli officers a company commander and his deputy and two Palestinian combatants were killed in a shootout in the central Gaza Strip near the Israeli knot of communities called Gush Katif. Hours later, in what appeared to be an unrelated incident, an Israeli vehicle was attacked by at least two insurgents near an Israeli air force base north of Eilat. Nobody was injured.

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