Israel to expand border between Egypt, Gaza Strip

Special to World
Monday, May 17, 2004

JERUSALEM Israel's military plans to expand the border corridor between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli officials said the corridor would be expanded from the current width of 50 meters to at least 200 meters. In some areas, the officials said, the corridor would reach 300 meters in width.

The eight-kilometer corridor would also be lined with observation posts and electronic sensors, officials said. They said the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian agreement allows Israel to expand the border area to up to three kilometers.

The military has also proposed to the Cabinet that Israel dig a giant trench that would reach the water table in the Egyptian-Gaza border area in an effort to prevent the construction of tunnels. Officials said such a project would cost more than $100 million and has not yet been approved.

On Sunday, Israel's High Court ruled that the military could widen the corridor by destroying empty buildings on the outskirts of the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah. The military said virtually all of the buildings near the corridor have been vacated by their owners and taken over by Palestinian insurgents. Palestinian sources said 116 buildings were destroyed last week in Rafah.

Officials said the widened border strip would ensure the effectiveness of the military's observation posts along the so-called Philadelphi corridor. They said that Israeli soldiers have long been hampered by constant Palestinian small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from Rafah.

The removal of the buildings would also prevent Palestinian insurgents from placing bombs along the corridor, officials said. They said the widening of the corridor would also allow armored bulldozer and armored personnel carrier teams to effectively detect and destroy weapons tunnels without the distraction of sniper and RPG fire.

Officials said the widening of the corridor would also hamper Palestinian efforts to dig tunnels from Rafah into neighboring Egypt. They said the Palestinians would require advanced tools to complete an extended tunnel.

The widening of the border corridor was part of a plan to separate Rafah from the rest of the Gaza Strip, officials said. They said the military, which has already deployed troops and tanks between Rafah and Khan Yunis, launched the plan on Monday.

Earlier, Israeli AH-64A Apache attack helicopters fired missiles toward a Fatah office, a Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine office and a car in the Gaza City neighborhood of Zeitoun, the scene of heavy fighting last week between Israeli troops and Palestinian insurgents.

Palestinian sources said the Israeli missiles struck the car and several people were injured. Along the Israeli-Gaza security fence, Israeli troops killed three Palestinians as they tried to plant a bomb for use against Israeli patrols.

"We started continuous air strikes," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said. "We will intensify the fighting."

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon briefed the Cabinet on the plans to expand the border corridor, a move that officials said has been delayed for operational reasons. Ya'alon said Egypt was not helping to prevent the flow of weapons to the Gaza Strip.

Ya'alon said the weapons being smuggled from Egypt came from Africa and Iran. He said Palestinians have been trying to smuggle Katyusha rockets from Sinai into the Gaza Strip.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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