RAFAH, Egypt (AP) – About 5,000 Egyptian state security police fanned out near the Egypt-Gaza border to protect Egyptians living in the area after reports that Israel might drop “smart bombs” on suspected smuggling tunnels, officials said Sunday.
The reports of the deployment first emerged late Saturday and were confirmed early Sunday by Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency.
“The security forces have deployed along the entire border .. following threats by Israel .. to drop ‘smart’ bombs in the Philadelphi Corridor,” the news agency said. “The security deployment was to protect Egyptians living in the border area.” It gave no number of the police, but other officials said it was roughly 5,000.
Initial reports had indicated the deploying forces were Egyptian army soldiers, but officials stressed Sunday that was not the case, and the forces consisted of state security police, a paramilitary-like force often used in Egypt to maintain civil order.
Egypt is prohibited from placing soldiers in parts of the Sinai immediately adjacent to the border under the 1979 peace deal that led to Israel’s withdrawal from the peninsula, but it can deploy police there.
The security police normally are stationed in towns, including al-Arish, in the Sinai peninsula. But they were redeployed Saturday to fan out across the northern peninsula, patrolling roads in and out of border towns and setting up checkpoints, an Egyptian interior ministry official said in Cairo.
Police also were launching raids on suspected militant hideouts as well, he added on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
On Sunday, Israel’s army said the Rafah border crossing in the area, which is open only sporadically, would be closed Sunday.
Israeli officials said they were checking the report that Egyptian police forces had been deployed in the region but had no immediate information Sunday. They also said Egyptian officials would be informed ahead of time of any Israeli actions planned for the area.
Last week, Israel said it had uncovered 15 tunnels burrowed under the Egypt-Gaza border, where militants are suspected of smuggling weapons and other contraband to use in attacks against Israel.
The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported Friday that Israel planned to use precision-guided weapons to destroy the tunnels.
The Egyptian interior ministry official said he was aware of the Maariv report about possible bombings, and that Egyptian authorities had their own intelligence information to verify it.
After an Israeli soldier was captured by Hamas-linked militants on June 25, Israel launched a massive military operation into Gaza, where Cpl. Gilad Shalit is believed to be held. It was the first time Israeli troops entered parts of the coastal strip since the 2005 withdrawal.
On Saturday, residents were forced to evacuate their homes and shops to make room for thousands of Egyptian police moving into border regions, a Sinai security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The official said Egypt had not given approval to any Israeli attacks on suspected tunnels in the area, and that talks were planned between Israeli and Egyptian officials over the matter.
“There will be negotiations aimed at discouraging such a (bombing) operation, because thousands of local civilians will be subjected to danger,” he said. Other Egyptian security officials could not confirm that any talks were planned.
The Rafah crossing is open only sporadically, and there are often thousands of Palestinians amassed at the area waiting to cross back and forth into Egypt. Separately, witnesses said nearly 1,000 Egyptian border guards continue to man posts along the Egypt-Gaza border, in a buffer zone established after Israeli relinquished control of the crossing. Egyptian and Palestinian control of the frontier was considered key to ending Israel’s more than 30-year occupation of Gaza. But Israel has complained that weapons-trafficking continues there.