Rice gets the low down on the tunnels

DEBKAfile Exclusive: Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak will visit Cairo soon to discuss Egypt’s bid for renegotiation of 1979 peace accords

President Hosni Mubarak demands urgent and far-reaching changes in Egypt’s military deployment in the peninsula to combat al Qaeda’s spreading presence in Sinai and Gaza, if the two territories are to be prevented from sliding into a second North Waziristan and threatening both countries. The deployment was strictly limited under the military protocol attached to the 28-year old Egypt-Israel peace accord. Egyptian officials are now telling Israeli and US officials that to draw a barrier between Gaza and the Egyptian peninsula and choke off the flow of al Qaeda operatives into Gaza, 7,500 special operations troops must be urgently sent out. They will need armored personnel carriers and vehicles armed with artillery and the backing of battle and surveillance helicopters.

Cairo holds Palestinian Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas primarily responsible for the deterioration of the situation in and around the Gaza Strip.

On July 29, DEBKAfile disclosed the transit of 30 al Qaeda network operatives from Egypt into the Gaza Strip. They were led by Osama bin Laden’s liaison man, Muhammed Fayed Ibrahim, formerly posted in Nebi Suwail near Cairo and now in position on Israel’s southwestern border.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report that this was one of the most pressing issues raised in the talks US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and defense secretary Robert Gates held in Cairo and Jerusalem. Much discussion was also devoted to the tunnels through which tons of weapons are smuggled into Gaza for the benefit of various Palestinian terrorist groups. Al Qaeda uses the same tunnels to spirit its fighters and arms into Gaza.

Cairo warns that unless the seven smuggler clans are quickly put out of business, they will soon extend their tunnel system up to the West Bank, giving Hamas and al Qaeda an accessible corridor for expansion.

In their briefings to Rice and Gates, Egyptian officials explained that the tunnels are run as lucrative business concerns by seven Sinai-based Palestinian Bedouin families, who excavate and build them on commission from Palestinian or al Qaeda cells. Clients are charged up to an estimated $150,000, depending on the difficulty of the terrain and quality of the facilities. The client gets three hours free of charge to smuggle through any merchandise he pleases; after that, each cargo is subject to a separate fee.

The Americans were also informed, according to DEBKAfile, that orders for smuggled weapons were also placed by Mahmoud Abbas and his two Fatah aides, ex-national security adviser Muhammed Dahlan and ex-chief of preventive intelligence, Rashid Abu Shbak, who were fired last month after their forces were defeated by Hamas.

The American officials, as well as Israeli prime minister Olmert and Barak, heard a serious accusation from Cairo that Abbas, by his maneuvers, had not only set the scene for his own downfall in Gaza, but substantially exacerbated the dangers facing US interests in this part of the Middle East, as well as the national security of Israel and Egypt.

August 4, 2007 | 3 Comments »

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