PA Seals Off 12 Arms-smuggling Tunnels in Gaza

The Palestinian security services have recently located and sealed 12 arms-smuggling tunnels along the Philadelphi route, on the Gazan-Egyptian border, security sources say.

The Israel Defense Forces are pleased with the Palestinian efforts, which were ordered by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. At the same time, however, the Palestinian successes have strengthened the long-standing opinion in the defense establishment that the arms-smuggling tunnels depend for their existence on the PA's tacit cooperation.

Abbas's predecessor, Yasser Arafat, did not allow the PA security services to take action against the tunnels, and these tunnels therefore served as the conduit for most of the arms and ammunition used by Palestinian groups against the IDF in Gaza.

Most of the tunnels are operated by Hamas and the popular resistance committees; a few are run by professional arms smugglers, including some who have held top posts in the PA security services in Gaza. The PA's success against the tunnels rests primarily on its intelligence-gathering capabilities within Palestinian society.

The Egyptians could have posted similar successes against the tunnels on their side of the border, defense sources say, but in practice, their activity against the tunnels has been negligible. Israel and Egypt are still at odds over Cairo's proposal to man its side of the Gazan border with Border Police units, which are considered higher quality than the regular police forces stationed there now.

The Palestinians apparently stepped up their efforts against the smuggling tunnels in order to convince both Israel and the United States that the IDF should leave the Philadelphi route when it leaves the rest of Gaza. Currently, the IDF is slated to remain on Philadelphi even after the disengagement from Gaza, to prevent arms smuggling into the Strip. The government has no objection to leaving Philadelphi if an end to the arms smuggling could be assured; the problem is that the current cease-fire is fragile, and should it collapse, the PA is liable to permit large-scale smuggling to resume.

In that case, moreover, the smugglers would probably to try to bring in more sophisticated weaponry, such as Katyusha rockets or shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, which could change the nature of the war.

Since the intifada began, the IDF has destroyed more than 100 arms-smuggling tunnels around Philadelphi. In the course of these operations, it also destroyed some 1,400 Palestinian houses and suffered many casualties.

While the army praises the PA's achievements on the smuggling tunnels, it says that the PA has been only partially successful in other areas. On one hand, it is trying to prevent Qassam rockets and mortars from being fired into Israel, and recently, there have been several reports of PA troops opening fire on Qassam-launching cells that refused orders to leave the launch zones.

In some cases, PA troops have even arrested cell members, who come mainly from Hamas. These moves are widely supported by the Palestinian public, which is sick of the fighting, and there have even been cases of Palestinian civilians calling the PA security services to report on Qassam cells in their area.

Hamas, understanding the public's desire for calm, has also significantly reduced its activity. The combination of Hamas' restraint and the PA's more aggressive measures has caused the number of attacks on Israeli targets in Gaza to drop by about 85 percent over the last two weeks from the former level of some 100 attacks a week.

Abbas has also ordered his troops to maintain internal law and order. Palestinian policemen have therefore destroyed many illegal buildings in Gaza recently; they have also started issuing traffic tickets.

Nevertheless, due to the PA's desire to refrain from open clashes with the terrorist organizations, it has not confiscated their weapons or taken any action against their other military activities. The organizations are therefore continuing to manufacture Qassam rockets undisturbed, and are also building more rocket and mortar manufactories. In addition, they are giving their members intensive military training.

Overall, however, Israel believes that the trend is positive and hopes that Abbas will expand his troops' operations and impose a genuine cease-fire. Therefore, the army is trying not to respond to any incidences of Palestinian violence, in order to give Abbas time to develop the PA's ability to impose law and order.