Tunnels to Egypt are major supply line for Palestinians

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

TEL AVIV The Palestinian Authority and a range of insurgency groups are said to cooperate in the smuggling of weapons and explosives from Egypt.

Israeli military sources said the weekend operation to search and destroy at least 13 tunnels that connect the southern town of Rafah with the neighboring Egyptian-controlled Sinai Peninsula has pointed to cooperation by a range of Palestinian elements. The sources said the elements range from the ruling Fatah Party to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Palestinian groups began smuggling weapons from Egypt before the advent of the PA in 1994, Middle East Newsline reported.

But over the last three years the tunnels have represented a major source of supplies for the production of missiles, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and high-grade explosives.

The insurgency groups, in cooperation with PA officials, were said to share the expense of constructing and maintaining the tunnels as well as the smuggling of weapons and explosives from Egypt. The military sources said the PA and insurgency groups maintain an arrangement for the division of material that comes from the Egyptian-side of Rafah.

On Tuesday, an Israeli military force returned to Rafah in a search-and-destroy operation for the tunnels. The combined force, which included 40 tanks and armored personnel carrier, was also composed of infantry and engineering units and was expected to operate for several days.

The tunnels were dug from the homes of residents of the Palestinian refugee camp in Rafah to conceal their presence from the Israelis, the sources said. They said PA security officials have been paid a percentage of the profits and don't interfere in the smuggling.

Israel's military has found three of 13 tunnels believed to be in operation amid heavy battles with Palestinian insurgents. Ten Palestinians were killed in two days of fighting and they included operatives from Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

One of the casualties was identified as the commander of the Fatah-dominated Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Naadar Abu Taha, age 23. Other Palestinians were injured when they tried to prepare bombs meant to be hurled against Israeli forces.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East has assessed that 114 homes and refugee shelters were demolished during the Israeli operation. The agency said 1,240 people have become homeless.

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