U.S. Army Training Egyptians to Find and Destroy Smuggling Tunnels

Israel demands that Hamas commit to stop smuggling weapons as a condition for a lull, but Hamas refuses.

The United States Army has begun training Egyptian soldiers to locate and destroy tunnels, in an effort to improve the Egyptian army's ability to cope with arms-smuggling from Sinai to the Gaza Strip.

A second, larger group of Egyptian soldiers is also due to arrive shortly for training, which is taking place at a U.S. Army base in Texas.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is teaching the Egyptian troops how to use advanced technological equipment to find and destroy the tunnels, including instruments that measure ground fluctuations and signal that a tunnel is being dug.

There has already been some improvement in Egypt's anti-smuggling activity, said Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, who heads the Military Intelligence research division.

"The Egyptians have intensified their efforts along the border, but their activity is still a drop in the sea, and the smuggling is continuing," Baidatz told the cabinet.

Arms-smuggling is a key issue in Israel-Egypt talks on a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Israel demands that Hamas commit to stop smuggling weapons as a condition for a lull, but Hamas refuses to do so. As an alternative, Egypt said it would guarantee a halt in smuggling and intensify its efforts to thwart such activity. Israel, however, is concerned the issue will damage its relations with Egypt.

Over the past year, the U.S. has put much pressure on Egypt to improve how it deals with the arms-smuggling into Gaza, an Israeli diplomatic source said. Members of the House of Representatives proposed freezing $200 million in military financial aid to Egypt until it acted to stop the smuggling. Egypt was angered by the initiative, which was eventually nixed by U.S. President George W. Bush.

All the same, the developments in Congress did help change the Egyptian attitude toward the arms-smuggling, which the Egyptians had long denied. Some six months ago, Egyptian officials began admitting to American officials that the smuggling was taking place and demonstrated the results of their efforts to stop the smuggling.

The Bush administration also sent a Pentagon delegation to the Egypt-Gaza border, and they submitted a report recommending that the U.S. help the Egyptians halt the smuggling and ask Israel to agree to an increased Egyptian border force in Sinai.

In January, U.S. Congressman Steve Israel, a Democrat from New York, announced after a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that the U.S. would allocate $23 million of its military aid to Egypt for tunnel-locating equipment.