Image: Palestinian tunnel
Kevin Frayer  /  AP
A Palestinian tunnel digger, wearing a mask to conceal his identity, removes sand in a bucket from an underground tunnel in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the border with Egypt, on Aug. 1, 2007.
updated 1/7/2009 6:24:25 PM ET 2009-01-07T23:24:25

Angry at Hamas' ability to fire rockets at Israel, the United States last year allocated $23 million to help train Egyptian officials to stop the smuggling into Gaza through tunnels at a border plagued by crisis and corruption.

Months later, there is little noticeable effect: Smuggling has continued at a robust pace, allowing Hamas militants in Gaza to gain rockets to shoot at Israeli citizens. Israel's military says about 300 tunnels ran under the Gaza-Egypt border before its military offensive began Dec. 27. Since then, Israel has bombed dozens of them.

The story of the U.S.-funded program and its lack of impact on the problem is a cautionary tale of how hard it has been to control Gaza's border with Egypt — at a time when patrolling that frontier and stopping the weapons flow are once again hot issues as mediators seek a cease-fire in Gaza.

Previous attempts to close the tunnels have largely failed, partly because of the mutual mistrust between Israel and Egypt and partly because of Egypt's inability to rein in corruption and alleviate poverty in the Sinai. The region near Gaza is home to tens of thousands of mostly disaffected Bedouin. Many of these nomads earn their living through smuggling.

No crossing ahead
Some critics say Egypt has never undertaken a truly robust effort because it hopes to use the issue to gain something it wants in turn: the right to deploy troops at the Sinai border, which was denied under the 1979 Camp David Accords. Egyptian officials also have been leery of making the border with Gaza truly normal and functioning, fearing an influx of Palestinian militancy into Egypt.

President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, would not point fingers when asked Tuesday whether Egypt had done enough to stop the smuggling of rockets.

"Preventing them is very hard because Hamas clearly wants them, and countries like Iran and Syria clearly want to supply them," he said. More work also needs to be done to interdict the weapons that come from supplying nations before they get to the tunnels leading into Gaza, he said.

One former Egyptian security official who now advises the government on security issues said U.S. money alone would not stop smuggling. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

U.S. officials, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has helped train Egyptian border guards, and the Defense Department, which implements U.S. foreign military assistance programs, refused to give details of how and when the $23 million was spent.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo confirmed that the U.S. is working with Egypt and said the Corps of Engineers was sharing its expertise. The embassy would provide no further details, describing the program as led by Egypt. The Ministry of Defense declined to comment immediately on the issue.

In the past, Egypt has said Palestinians in Gaza must do more to solve the problem.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit stressed that the tunnels were not a new problem, but he denied that weapons were being smuggled.

"The tunnels have always been there. We have been trying to control them. But the tunnels are there because the crossings are closed and there is a siege and there is starvation," he told Al-Arabiya television earlier this week. "Those who say they are being used to smuggle weapons and equipment are deluded. Weapons are coming through the sea."

Underground smuggling
An Egyptian security official at the border would say only that five U.S. Army engineers arrived at the frontier in the fall — about nine months after the money was allocated by the U.S. — and stayed for a month to train Egyptian guards to use high-tech radar that can detect tunnels by locating cavities underground.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, insisted the effort boosted Egypt's ability to detect more tunnels in recent months, but would not elaborate.

Israeli military and Shin Bet security officers, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with defense establishment rules, say Egypt began deploying the U.S. equipment — including a form of ground-penetrating radar — only about three months ago.

The U.S.-Egypt tunnel program had its birth in American and Israeli frustration at the rocket firing by Hamas since the Palestinian militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

For the first time, Congress moved in late 2007 to put conditions on the $2 billion in aid, most of it military assistance, that Washington gives annually to Egypt — the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel.

Congress voted to withhold $100 million until Egypt, among other things, stopped the flow of weapons through the tunnels.

Tracking Hamas' rockets
Egypt, which dislikes conditions being put on the U.S. aid, suspected that Israel was behind the lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill and was hostile to the idea at first, according to a top local U.S. diplomat who spoke about the program at the time. The diplomat spoke only on condition of anonymity because the matter involved sensitive relations between Egypt and Israel.

Under congressional pressure, Egypt agreed in January 2008 to spend $23 million of the U.S. military aid solely on training and technical equipment to detect the tunnels.

Tunnel smuggling between Egypt and Gaza dates back to the 1980s, when Israel returned to the Sinai Desert to Egypt. But it spiraled out of control after Hamas seized power, provoking Israel and Egypt to cut the Gaza Strip off from the outside world.

Yet during the time period that Egypt promised to step up its tunnel detection last year, Hamas was able to obtain a growing number of more sophisticated, longer-range weapons, which U.S. and Israeli officials have said they believe are made of parts originating in Syria or Iran.

"A lot of the longer-range rockets that have hit Israel, those have been smuggled in over the last few months," said David Makovsky, a fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A way of life
One smuggler at the frontier town of Rafah joked about the U.S. effort.

"They spent millions and they only got a few tunnels," said the smuggler, who would not give his name for fear of arrest by Egyptian authorities.

The father of seven, who insisted he does not smuggle weapons, said smuggling is a way of life for Rafah residents, many of whom are unemployed or make less than $100 a month at their government jobs. Smuggling a box of cigarettes can bring $70, a box of bullets $200, he said.

Even if caught, a smuggler can easily pay off border guards, many of whom earn even less, he said. Rebuilding the tunnels if they are destroyed also is easy, he said.

"All of Rafah relies on the tunneling business. For God sake, look at all the modern cars in this town, which is full of unemployed people," he said.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the smuggling often is a family business — worked by people whose relatives live on both sides of the border.

Call for enforcement
The tunnels are back in the news again as new efforts emerge to end the Gaza fighting and solve the political standoff.

International Mideast envoy Tony Blair said this week that arrangements to stop the smuggling would be key to any cease-fire. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said as part of a plan put forth by Egypt and France, Cairo had agreed to work more on border security.

But pessimism about Egypt's political willingness or ability to stop the smuggling remains.

Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Egypt has long lacked the political will to crack down.

"It's about changing the entire attitude, whereby you do enforcement in a very intensive and aggressive way, which we have not seen yet," Ayalon said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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