RAFAH, Egypt (AFP) – Hidden in the shadows of a Rafah residential zone, two Egyptian border police and their attack dogs stand guard at the entrance to a smuggling tunnel to the besieged Gaza Strip.
The discovery of the tunnel, only metres (yards) from the garden of a house where young children are playing and giggling near a flock of chickens, shows the latest success in Egypt’s war on smugglers.
Army chief Lieutenant Colonel Yasser Ali proudly showed a group of foreign journalists the tunnel but refused to give details of what — if anything — had been found inside.
“We discovered it this morning. It is the 452nd we have found in the last three years,” he said.
The United States and Israel have frequently accused Egypt of failing to halt the smuggling of weapons into the Strip, which has been under a crippling Israeli blockade since Hamas seized control of it last year.
In June this year, Cairo appealed to the United States for help in locating the tunnels and US authorities responded by sending a team of specialists.
“We need their experience. After all, they are experts. They have to combat tunnels dug by Mexicans to cross into the United States,” Ali added.
A team of US engineers from the Department of Defence is already on site, but is keeping a low profile, working to support and train Egyptian forces in the battle against the smugglers.
“We are already finding more tunnels ourselves; more than 200 this year. But we want to use their more successful methods of tunnel detection and destruction,” Ali said.
In addition to training border guards, the United States has promised to give Egypt 33 million dollars (22.2 million euros) to buy new technology to uncover tunnels.
Authorities said the equipment had been dispatched and had yet to arrive in Egypt, but they refused to give details regarding the nature of the hardware.
Several times a week, border guards blow up, collapse or fill in freshly discovered tunnels, but there are always more in this frontier region; sometimes in gardens, houses or even school yards.
Since the Israeli army withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, 750 Egyptian border guards plus police officers have been deployed along the 13.5 kilometre-long frontier, which stretches from the sea to the desert.
The border zone is a barren, sandy wasteland of searing heat and choking dust that is deserted except for the coils of barbed wire and the concrete barrier wall dividing the two regions.
“It is the semi-permanent closure of the Rafah crossing, after the arrival of Hamas in Gaza, which has led to the increase in smuggling tunnels,” Ali said, referring to when the Islamists routed forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June 2007.
The Rafah crossing is the only link between Gaza and the outside world that bypasses Israel, and is opened to allow limited humanitarian goods into the region. It was last opened in July.
“Before Hamas seized power, the crossing was opened at least twice a week allowing normal and legal passage of Palestinians, of aid and provisions,” he said.
The siege has meant a majority of Gaza’s impoverished 1.5 million residents now rely on foreign aid to survive.
In January, Palestinian militants blew up large sections of the border fence, sending hundreds of thousands of Gazans pouring into Egypt to stock up on basic goods before Egypt and Hamas resealed the border after nearly two weeks.
“The longer the Israeli blockade lasts, the more you will find weapons, ammunition and drugs. Before, the contraband was more harmless, like food, fuel or cigarettes,” Ali said.
The army officer claimed the new drive against smuggling has meant that not a single weapon has arrived in Gaza via Egypt this year.
“The police regularly find arms caches in the Sinai desert (west of the crossing). (The weapons) never make it as far as the border,” he said.
In June, an Egyptian-brokered truce brought a virtual halt to fighting between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants and the near-daily rocket attacks launched from Gaza on southern Israel.
Hamas had said the truce would lead to the lifting of the Israeli siege, which Israel has in turn linked to progress on the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier captured in a bloody cross-border raid by Gaza militants in June 2006.
Hamas has offered to exchange Shalit for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, including several who were implicated in deadly attacks on Israelis, but so far Israel has refused.
Hopes for the future of the fragile ceasefire are mixed.
“There will be other attacks. It is inevitable. It cannot carry on like this. The Palestinians hold protests every Friday in front of the crossing. They are choking,” said an Egyptian military source on condition of anonymity.