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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that the border with Egypt must be "turned into a real border to stop the flood of infiltrators into Israel."

Netanyahu made the remark while touring the south, in areas where a fence is to be constructed to keep infiltrators out. Israel Defense Forces officers in charge of the area warned that Al-Qaida operatives could sneak into Israel via the Egyptian border along with thousands of African labor migrants. Intelligence estimates put the number of such migrants in Egypt at more than two million.

"Most of the border is marked with iron posts with nothing between them," Brig. Gen. Tamir Yadai, commander of the division in charge of the sector, told Netanyahu. Oversight by Egyptian border patrols is lacking, he said, and the IDF has too few troops deployed in the area to deal with the hundreds of infiltrators.

"It has become a real industry. Smugglers get $2,000 for every infiltrator," Yadai said.

Last year, 5,000 infiltrators were stopped at the border, Yadai told the prime minister.

A few weeks ago, an attack was thwarted when a terrorist identified by troops threw away his explosive belt and fled back into Egypt. Last year 1.3 tons of hashish and 160 kilograms of heroine were confiscated from infiltrators.

The cabinet is to vote in two weeks on a proposal to build a barrier along the Egyptian border. The barrier is to consist of two sections of fencing, one north of Eilat and the second south of the Gaza Strip, as well as an electronic warning system. The director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Eyal Gabai, said that about NIS 1.35 billion has been earmarked to complete construction within two to three years.

However, the cabinet decision will reportedly also state clearly that war refugees who come to Israel will be taken in, as were the refugees from Darfur in Sudan.

Netanyahu said he had brought up the issue of a barrier on his recent visit to Egypt and President Hosni Mubarak had no objections to its construction.

Before his tour of the border yesterday, Netanyahu spoke at length about infiltrators in a speech to the Manufacturers Association of Israel. "We have become almost the only developed country in the world that can be reached on foot from the third world," he said. "We are being flooded with a tidal wave that threatens to wash away our achievements and damage our existence as a Jewish and democratic state."

Netanyahu referred to the Africans coming into Israel via the Sinai as labor seekers, not refugees fleeing war zones. He said Israel had weathered the economic crisis better than many countries in the region, and so it was attracting illegal labor migrants. "We are going to stop it," he said, referring to the infiltration.

He added that there were plans for more legislation and enforcement against employing illegal workers and to encourage Israelis to enter the work force.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers said in response to the prime minister's remarks: "The real danger to the Jewish state is not the refugees, but rather the many Jews in key positions who have forgotten that their parents were refugees."

Dana Weiler-Polak contributed to this report.