Israel Returns to Gaza-Egypt Border

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli forces are back in the border area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, searching for weapons smuggling tunnels for the first time since Israel left the area last year, the army said on Wednesday.

Two tunnels running under the border between Gaza and Egypt and two more openings for tunnels were uncovered in the area on Tuesday. Thirteen tunnels have been uncovered in Gaza during the last weeks, the army said.

The tunnels are key to terror groups' attempts to stockpile more and better weapons in Gaza.

Israeli officials have said that with a less than effective Egypt on one side of the border and a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority on the other, there is no way to stop the smuggling.

Israeli army officers reportedly believe that a number of advanced Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles have been smuggled into Gaza, not to mention rifles and other small arms.

The anti-tank missiles were sold to Syria by Russia, passed along to Hizballah and used against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon during this summer's war. The Russian-made missiles were blamed for about a third of the Israeli military casualties during the war, reports said.

Quoting unnamed military officers, the Jerusalem Post reported on Wednesday that Israel was preparing for its largest-ever incursion into the Gaza Strip.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz hinted that preparations were under way earlier this week when he said that Israel would not stand by idly and watch while Hamas armed itself, much as Hizballah had done.

Under a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the 12-kilometer (7.2-mile) border strip between Gaza and Egypt, known as the Philadelphia route, was evacuated last year as the final phase of Israel's unilateral withdrawal or "disengagement" from the Gaza Strip.

At the time, critics warned that weapons smuggling there would only increase.

Years ago, Israel described the area as having a "city of tunnels" running under it. But while the army was there, Israel was able to at least curb the weapons smuggling.

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